Red footed tortoises are, without question, one of the most beautiful of tortoises. Cherry-headed red-footed tortoises are nothing short of gorgeous. Aside from their beauty, however, red-foots are also very personable and inquisitive and extraordinarily hardy. Many tortoise collectors count them among their favorite species. Red-footed tortoises like so many other reptiles, get their name from their most distinctive feature—the red scales on their feet, or more appropriately, on their legs. Cherry-headed red-foot tortoises, also as the name would imply, not only have red legs but also a red or cherry-colored head. A cherry-head is not just a red-foot with a lot of color on their head, however. Although they are not currently classified as a subspecies, cherry-heads are distinguished by their place of origin (Brazil) and by the patterns on their plastron. Both red-foots and cherry-heads generally have dark colored carapaces with lighter colors in the center of their scutes and along the edges of their shell. That being said, cherry-heads also often exhibit some mottling of the carapace. Red-footed tortoises can grow up to 20 inches (50 centimeters), whereas the cherry-heads are typically smaller; closer to 12 inches as adults (30 centimeters). Both types of red-foot can live more than 50 years with proper care.
Both types of red-foot tortoise are found in tropical forests and moist savannas. Red-footed tortoises have a large range; from southeastern Panama south to Brazil and northern Argentina, and west to just east of the Andes mountains, and east to near the coast. Cherry-headed red-foots are found in the eastern state of Bahia, Brazil. Within their range, both types have proven very adaptable even taking to the disturbed areas created by slash and burn land clearing. They prefer humid areas with moist, but not inundated substrates, and tend to avoid dense tropical rainforest.
Red-foots, being a tropical species, require a warm, humid environment. In most states, this means they cannot live outside year-round without some special considerations. If you are in the southwest or southeastern United States, outdoor housing may be possible with the use of a greenhouse and/or misters. Care should be taken to prevent escape (tortoises will dig), and predation (in spite of their shells, tortoises can fall prey to any number of predators, including, but not limited to weasels, raccoons, dogs, coyotes, alligators, and raptors). Red-foot tortoises like to wallow about in mud, but do not like to be perpetually damp. This can be accomplished by providing a shallow mud bog in one small area. A shallow pan of water should also be provided, but will need to be changed regularly (see the previous sentences regarding wallowing in mud). A shelter should also be provided. A small rabbit hutch, dog house or other crudely fashioned enclosure can be used, but where applicable, should be heated to maintain minimal nighttime temperatures of no less than 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Daytime temperatures should provide an area that has a basking location of at least 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit. An outdoor spotlight or floodlight can be used to supplement ambient temperatures.
Indoors, red-foots require a large horizontally-oriented enclosure, generally 4 to 6 feet long by 2 to 3 feet wide (1.2 to 1.8 meters long by .6 to .9 meters wide). Rounded enclosures are preferential to those with defined corners (tortoises will often “pile” into corners), but should not be used if they compromise the overall space of the enclosure. Aquariums are generally not recommended unless visual barriers help to identify the parameters of the enclosure. Using a substrate such as cypress bark, mulch, or wood chips combined with clean soil will help to retain humidity. Both UVA/UVB and a basking light should be provided, with the basking area providing a minimum of 95 degrees Fahrenheit surface temperature. The enclosure should be large enough to provide a gradient where temperatures drop 10-15 degrees. Nighttime temperatures should not drop below 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit for extended periods of time. Water and mud should be provided (but permanent dampness should be avoided) and humidity levels of 75-80 percent are optimal. The enclosure should provide a shallow (not more than an inch or two deep, or shallow enough that the tortoise can raise its head out of the water if it is in the bowl) water bowl.
Red-foots are a tropical species, and, as such, do not hibernate, although periods of aestivation or inactivity may be noticed under some conditions.
Both types of red-footed tortoises are omnivorous and active foragers, enjoying an extremely varied diet in their natural habitat (much more so than most tortoises). In captivity they can be fed berries, grapes, dark leafy green vegetables (such as romaine lettuce, kale, spinach, endive, escarole, mustard greens, etc.), melons, mangos, hibiscus, alfalfa, carrots, squash and dandelion greens. They can also be fed earthworms, wax worms, mealworms, butter worms and moistened dry cat or dog food or monkey chow. They can also be fed any of the commercially available tortoise diets. As with all animals, variety is the key. Care should be taken not to over-feed animal proteins, however. A good rule of thumb is one ounce of animal protein every one week to 10 days is enough for a full grown tortoise.
As with most tortoises, red-foots are a long-lived species and this should be taken into account before making a commitment. As one book mentioned, red-foots are a lifelong pet. In some cases, this may mean that they could outlive their owners. Additionally, red-footed tortoises are more tropical than the majority of the readily available tortoises, and enjoy relative humidity levels in the 75-80 percent range.