Redfoot Tortoise Husbandry – What Drives Success

Redfoot Tortoise Husbandry

This post on Redfoot Tortoise Husbandry is a part of the presentation I made to the Dallas, Fort Worth Hematological Society in March of 2016.

Over my 45 year fascination and maintenance of various tortoise species I discovered a few principles I’d like to share with you as they pertain to Redfoot Tortoise Husbandry.

As you can see by the graphic at the top of this post, the foundation of successful tortoise husbandry are the knowledge of the topography and the underlying geology of their native range.

That can be broken down into two simple principles:

  • Topography drives their enclosures
  • Geology drives their diet

Redfoot Tortoise Husbandry – Topography drives their enclosure

First, let’s take a look at the topography of the native region of the Redfoot Tortoise and how it drives the type of enclosure or pens aspect of Redfoot Tortoise Husbandry.

For the entire range of the Redfoot tortoise (Southern Central America and Northern South America), 70-90% of the topography is dense tropical forest. Only 20-30% is open savanna which gets abundant daily direct sunshine.

So, understanding that fact, why would so many people owning a Redfoot or Yellowfoot tortoise create a pen with little to no cover, which is more suited for a Russian or Greek? It certainty isn’t because they’ve done the basic research on this species.

Why would someone put an animal with a black, navy blue, or dark brown carapace in a pen with the purpose of maximum light exposure? Ya got me.

When you look at the world’s predominate forest tortoises you’ll notice the vast majority have a carapace color I mentioned in the previous sentence. Think Yellowfoot, Burmese Black and Brown Mountain Tortoises, think Forest Hingeback, think Redfoot.

Why is that?

It’s because dark colors absorb heat and this basic scientific fact, drives forest tortoises to spend their lives in an environment that minimizes direct sunlight.

Dense tropical forest on or near the equator also have a very low year round temperature range. 70 to 94 degrees is typical in many of these regions, so there’s no need for a forest tortoise to bask in direct sunlight to reach their normal operating temperature.

The ambient heat of the forest is sufficient to that purpose.

There are exceptions to every rule, such as, the Elongated and Travancore Tortoise from India and Asia, which both have a lighter colored carapace.

The reverse of this principle are arid species tortoises. Many of them (Egyptian, Golden Greek, etc.) have very light colored carapaces because they need to reflect the continuous heat from direct sunlight.

Redfoot Tortoise Husbandry – Geology drives their diet

Now, let’s see how the geologic underlayment of a region drives the tortoise’s diet.

Let’s start in the Mediterranean basin where all of European, North African, and Asia Steppe tortoises developed and survive today.

From a geologic perspective this region is simply a one large, continuous limestone bed and the principal component of limestone is calcium.

The correlation between the the native ranges of these tortoise species and the limestone pockets easily explains why they developed there and why they continue to survive there today.

Combine the high calcium availability in the vegetation in this region from the limestone and the need for this vegetation to have a thicker, more fibrous leaf structure due to the high daily temperatures and near continuous sunshine and . . . .

. . . you can see why every book published on arid species husbandry published over the last 40 years worth its price talks about their need for a high calcium, high fiber diet.

The importance of fiber and it’s bio-chemical purposes in arid species tortoises is a discussion for another day and I’ll address in detail in a Udemy course I’m creating on Russian Tortoise husbandry.

So, how does this geology play out in the equatorial areas forest tortoises and our friend the Redfoot tortoise play out?

Well, the geologic region where Redfoot and Yellowfoot tortoises reside is not a large, continuous limestone bed. If fact, there’s not much limestone in the underlayment and what’s there doesn’t express it self near the surface like the Mediterranean basin.

It’s this geologic difference from their arid species brethren that drove forest tortoises do derive a different strategy for calcium uptake (and acquire the Vitamin D needed for the uptake cascade) and fiber requirements.

That strategy revolved around those aspects of their forest environment where calcium, fiber, and Vitamin D could be found.

In a tropical forest, that means; fruit, mushrooms, carrion, and mammal feces.

All of these are good sources of calcium, fiber, and Vitamin D. (D2 in Mushrooms, D3 in carrion and mammal feces).

From a fruit perspective think papaya. Native to many parts of the Redfoot range and an excellent 2:1 calcium to phosphorus ratio. Lots of fiber in the rind as well.

High in beta carotene (Vitamin A precursor) which is a vitamin in most dark leafy greens (think arid species diet). Also, fruit trees have deeper roots than surface vegetation, so their roots can access the available limestone well below the surface.

Mushrooms are loaded with minerals and other micro-nutrients and one of those nutrients is Vitamin D2. Bio-chemically D2 works the same way as D3 for calcium uptake, just not as effectively.

Carrion and mammal feces are both significant sources of protein and calcium. Redfoots and Yellowfoots both need animal protein otherwise they suffer from neurological issues manifesting itself in locomotion problems.

By consuming these readily available food sources within the forest, Redfoot’s and Yellowfoot’s evolved a strategy that satisfied their calcium needs in the absence of calcium and fiber rich surface vegetation.

These significant topographical and geologic differences between the environments of the arid and forest tortoises species is why I recommend the following completely different diets.

Arid species:

  • 100% dark, leafy fiberous greens, chopped despined cactus pads, garden weeds, and dried timothy hay.

Forest species:

  • 60% fruit, 35% greens (includes mushrooms), 5% animal protein – supplemented with a calcium/D3 powder.

On a closing note, when the first Impressed Tortoises of southeast Asia (dense tropical forests) were brought into captivity all of them died within 6 months.

It wasn’t until one intrepid individual lucky enough to get one started feeding it mushrooms as the primary food with fruit as the secondary item that one survived longer than 6 months.

Today captive bred Impressed tortoises are available on occasion and that availability can be traced back to finally “discovering” the correct diet.

As you now know, discovering the correct Impressed tortoise diet shouldn’t have taken long when you understand the topography and geology of the region the animal comes from in the wild.

Posted in Redfoot Care | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Top Redfoot Tortoise Foods – The Big 7

Let me first say, when it comes to top Redfoot Tortoise foods, yours should be getting a 60% fruit, 35% greens, and 5% animal protein diet. Conventional wisdom for their diet seems to be 90% greens and 10% fruit.

Like most convention wisdom, it’s wrong and based on what I call “shopping mall science”, but that’s a discussion for another day.

That being said, all 7 have excellent Calcium to Phosphorus ratios and no to low oxalates (oxalic acid).

So without further ado, here are . . . . .

The Top Redfoot Tortoise Foods

Top Redfoot Tortoise Foods number one.

1) Papaya

Top Redfoot Tortoise Foods - PapayaIt’s inherent to Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, and Bolivia, all areas with native Redfoot Tortoise populations. This is a food item they would encounter in their natural environment.

Very high in beta carotene, the precursor to Vitamin A, a critical vitamin for Tortoises with its important role in vision, bone growth, reproduction.

Papaya has significant levels of both carotenoids and polyphenols which are important for your Redfoot tortoise’s health.

They have a 2:1 Calcium to Phosphorus ratio, the ideal for any tortoise food.

Lastly, no oxalates at all. :-)

Top Redfoot Tortoise Foods number two.

2) Mango

Mangoes, Another of the Top Redfoot Tortoise FoodsThe Mango serves as a back-up for the Papaya, since this fruit is native to South Asia and not South America.

If papayas are not available in your area, you can substitute with mangoes, which in many parts of the country are cheaper than papayas.

Again, these are high in beta-carotene, lutein, and polyphenols; like quercetin, kaempferol, gallic acid, caffeic acid, catechins and tannins.

Another one with no oxalates.

Top Redfoot Tortoise Foods number three.

3) Figs

Top Redfoot Tortoise food number 3Another excellent Redfoot food due to its excellent (3:1) Calcium to Phosphorus ratio.

Figs are also high in Magnesium, Manganese, Potassium, and Vitamin K.

Make sure you feed them only fresh figs, not dried.

Fresh figs have lower sugar content and retain all of the vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

No oxalates.

Top Redfoot Tortoise Foods number four.

4) Pineapple

Top Redfoot Tortoise food #4Not a fruit native to Central America or South America (although they were introduced by the Dutch in the 1600’s and grow in Surinam on the northeast coast of South America), but one with an excellent calcium to phosphorus ratio, 2:1.

Costa Rica in Central America is the world’s largest producer of Pineapple, so maybe they are a native plant for Redfoot’s.

Also high in Manganese and Vitamin C.

Another one with no oxalates.

Top Redfoot Tortoise Foods number five.

5) Turnip Greens

Top Redfoot Tortoise Food Number 5

Turnip Greens

The single best green (in my opinion) you can feed any tortoise.

Excellent calcium to phosphorus ratio, 3:1, low oxalate content, high fiber, high in beta carotene, Folate, Vitamin C, and Vitamin K. Also, high in manganese.

Easy to find in all parts of the country in almost any grocery store and as such can be the foundational green of any tortoises diet.

Are also very easy grow in most parts of the country and you can eat the turnip and save the greens for your Redfoot!





Top Redfoot Tortoise Foods number six.

6) Dandelion Greens

Top Redfoot Tortoise food number 6Boy, is there a weed anywhere in the United States more common than the dandelion?

They are everywhere and almost year round in some parts of the country.

Here in Texas they start showing up in late January.

Anyway, another great green (and flower!) for any tortoise you can get free right from your yard!

Excellent calcium to phosphorus ratio, 2:1 and high in Vitamins A and C, with a good fiber content.

One caveat, don’t make it the only green you feed your tortoise because they can cause kidney and renal related issues on occasion.

Another one with no oxalates.

Top Redfoot Tortoise Foods number seven.

7) Hibiscus leaves and flowers

Top Redfoot Tortoise food #7A flowering plant native to subtropical and tropical areas of the world – so a somewhat native food item for Redfoot Tortoises.

Both the leaves and flowers are excellent food items for any tortoise species because of their high levels of calcium, Vitamin C and Iron.

My Redfoots, Russian’s and Greek’s all devour the leaves and flowers, so I’m confident yours will too.

A good level of fiber in the leaves is a plus as well.

No oxalates.

There you have it, the top Redfoot Tortoise foods. Make these seven the foundational components of your Redfoot’s diet and you’ll be well on your way to a healthy, active tortoise to enjoy for many decades.

For videos on my Redfoot’s (adults and hatchlings) regarding diet, pens, and general Redfoot “stuff” check out my YouTube Channel – Redfoot Tortoise Guy

Posted in Redfoot Diet | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Re-purpose An Old Pen To a new Indoor Redfoot Tortoise Enclosure

New Indoor Redfoot Tortoise Enclosure

Now that we’ve moved to the Dallas metroplex from Minneapolis, we need to create an indoor pen for our sub-adult Redfoot tortoises.

I’m using a 3 foot by 8 foot wood pen I had been using for one of my male Russians, who’s now in with another male and costing nicely, for my small sub-adult Redfoot herd.

First, my wife and I used an old dark brown tarp and fit and cut it to size for the inside of the pen. This will keep moisture levels higher at tortoise level, which is important for Redfoot’s since they’re tropical forest animals. We’ve used duct tape to adhere it to the top of the pen.

For the substrate I’ve used my combo of choice, a 50/50 mix pf topsoil and expanded, damp coconut fiber. This we top with 1-2 inches of finely milled cypress mulch.

The beauty of this substrate is it retains moisture very well, but with the cypress mulch topping keeps the tortoises from getting any level of shell rot on their plastron’s if the topsoil/coconut fiber gets too wet from my adding water to it.

I use a 3-4 inch depth of substrate because over time it compacts down to 2=3 inches even with my added weekly water.

Next we add plastic plants to one third of the pen to give them places to hide and simulate the forest floor where at this age they spend 100% of their time. To the next third we add the heat emitter and light to provide constant heat and dim light to simulate the light inside a tropical forest.

A 100 watt heat emitter keeps the pen at a 70-85 degree temperature gradient across the pen. The light I’m using is a 13 watt UVB bulb. It’s the only bulb I had at home and I wanted as low a wattage as possible because I don’t want a bulb to produce heat.

UVB bulbs aren’t required for Redfoot’s as long as you feed them a small amount of animal protein (low fat cat food for example) mixed with a liberal amount of pure calcium carbonate every 10 days or so.

I’m using Plexiglas we brought with us to Texas to cover the pen top in order to hold in the heat and moisture. It’s not the best looking setup, but it works for now. :-)

We mist down the pen every other day to ensure the humidity stays at 60-80%.

So there you have it, a way to re-purpose a pen used for an arid species to one for a forest species.

Posted in Redfoot Care | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Cheap, Easy Outdoor Redfoot Tortoise Pen

A Cheap, Easy Outdoor Redfoot Tortoise Pen

If setting up a short-term outdoor pen for your Redfoot Tortoises is a problem, here’s another quick idea for you.

It’s a plastic baby pool anyone over the age of 40 will remember from childhood. Anyway, it’s nice a round and easy to fill with my substrate, the 50/50 topsoil, coconut fiber mix, and covered with an inch or two of cypress mulch.

There’s some moss, a hide, and plastic plant so your Redfoot’s can dig in and hide when they get too warm or to feel safe.

I have it temporarily covered with our old puppy fence, but a mosquito or bird netting will work much better and a small role of either one is cheap. You want to make sure no predator can get in while your Redfoot tortoises are outside.

This isn’t meant to be one they can live in outside 24/7 it isn’t secure enough, but more of a 4-6 hour time outside.

You can put this setup together for $35-40 total cost, so if you’re looking for a quick and easy outdoor pen for your Redfoot Tortoises, here’s another idea to consider.

Posted in Redfoot Care | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Redfoot Tortoises and Marrow Bones

Redfoot Tortoises and Marrow Bones

Here’s another tip for your Redfoot tortoise on keeping their beaks trimmed. We always feed our Redfoot tortoises on slates, the ones you can find at a Lowe’s or Home Depot for a buck or two for a 12 inch by 12 inch one.

Get one with a rough side to put the food on and as your Redfoot tortoise goes after the food items they hit up against the slate and it slowly files down their beak and keeps it from getting overgrown.

Redfoot tortoises and marrow bones. We have three dogs and feed them a raw diet, so they get fresh marrow bones a couple of times a week. Once they have reached the point of only having meat remnants left on the bone I take them away from the dogs and put them in our Redfoot tortoise pen.

Redfoot’s, being omnivorous to a small degree, will chew off the small pieces of meat left on the bone and, more importantly, chew the bone itself which like the slate helps to file down their beak.

You want to remove the marrow bone after a day as the smell can get noticeable.

Anyway, just another quick idea you can run with and use as you feel warranted for your Redfoot tortoise.

Posted in Redfoot Diet | Tagged , | Leave a comment

I’ve moved to Texas

Now that the misses and I have successfully moved from a Minneapolis, Minnesota suburb to the Dallas metroplex, I’ll start back up with posts and videos.

Have a both indoor and outdoor pens to recreate for the Redfoot’s, so stay tuned for videos on how to build both of them yourself.


Posted in Redfoot Care | Leave a comment

Redfoot Tortoise Eggs Incubation

Incubating Redfoot tortoise eggs is something you’re going to face as a tortoise keeper at some point.

When this happens there are two steps you need to take in order to end up with healthy hatchlings.

And since I get asked the question and its important now, “how long is the gestation for Redfoot tortoise eggs?”

The answer is, 110-150 days and it varies for each female Redfoot. Over the last 5 years my female has had her eggs hatch like clockwork at between 108-115 days.

When you have your Redfoot tortoise laying eggs you have 6-10 hours to dig them up before you reach the point where they need to stay where she put them – and I’ll get to why a little later.

Now, let’s talk about the two steps you need to put in place before digging up the eggs:

1- setting up the incubator
2- the right container and medium for the eggs.

Incubator Set Up and Incubation Temperature

The incubator we’ve used for Redfoot tortoise eggs for many years is the Hovabator. They’re designed for hatching chicken and duck eggs, but works great for tortoise eggs.

First, you’ll need to fill the internal channel with water. Then make sure this stays full the entire time the eggs are incubating. Check the water level every 3-4 days and top off as needed.

Next you’ll want to get a digital thermometer, set it in the incubator and work to get the temperature to a steady 85-86 degrees.

You adjust the lever on the top left of the incubator to increase or decrease the temperature. It typically takes 3-4 hours to get the temp set at a consistent 85-86 degrees.

Egg Medium and Container

One of the keys to successfully incubating Redfoot tortoise eggs is the medium. I’ve used vermiculite for years and it works very well. You could also use damp sphagnum moss for Redfoot tortoise eggs.

For an egg container we use the round plastic ones people use for storing leftovers in the refrigerator. They work great, last for years, and hold in the heat and humidity generated by the incubator very well.

So our the medium into the plastic container about half full, then add warm, but not hot water to fill the medium.

Then hold your hand over a section and let as much water run out as possible, then push down the medium to squeeze out any more water and dump it.

You want a damp medium not wet one because a wet medium will rot the eggs.

Now, form 3-4 areas in the damp medium for the eggs to sit in and put the container in the incubator.

Digging Up Redfoot Tortoise Eggs

This needs to be done ideally within 9 hours of your Redfoot tortoise laying eggs.

Here’s why:

Within 12-24 hours Redfoot tortoise eggs develop small blood vessels that attach to the eggs inside wall. Any moving after that time will tear these blood vessels and destroy the chance for it to develop into an embryonic tortoise.

Okay, back to digging up the eggs.

Since Redfoot’s are curious animals you’ll want to feed them to distract them from coming over to you as you dig up the eggs.

So, go ahead and feed them – I’ll wait. :-)

Now, locate where she dug out the nest and dig down until you see the white of an eggshell start to pop though the substrate. Redfoot’s drop 3-7 eggs in a clutch, so you’ll want to dig around that egg to locate the other 2-6 next to or below it in the substrate.

Try not to spin the egg and as best as you can keep it in the same position you find it when you place it in the medium in the container.

Put each one you find in the container with the damp medium. Once you’ve located all the eggs and filled one or more containers with eggs, put them in the incubator.

Put the end of the digital thermometer in the medium in the container closest to the heat element inside the incubator. Then watch the temperature over the next hour or so to make sure it’s at between 85 and 86 degrees.

There’s a good chance you’ll need to adjust the heat back and forth for a few hours before it stays in the 85-86 degree range.

At this point all you need to do is count down the days and make sure the temperature stays in that range. Top off the channel with water every few days and wait for new life to appear from this clutch of Redfoot tortoise eggs.

Posted in Redfoot Breeding | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Redfoot Tortoise Pyramiding

If you have a captive bred hatchling or purchased a sub-adult Redfoot it’s a virtual certainty it either has or will have some level of  Redfoot Tortoise pyramiding as it ages.

Redfoot Tortoise pyramidingWhy is it wild caught adults have perfectly smooth carapaces?

And why is just about every captive bred Redfoot tortoise within a few years develops a rising carapace called stacking or pyramiding?

There are four factors that explain Redfoot Tortoise pyramiding:

  • Their diet
  • Enclosure humidity level
  • Temperature in the enclosure
  • The enclosure size

Let’s go into each one to understand why they play such a critical role in Redfoot tortoise pyramiding.

Redfoot Tortoise Pyramiding and Diet

Redfoot tortoises and their close relative the Yellowfoot tortoise share one important characteristic – they both spend the majority of their lives in dense tropical forests.

So much so, the Yellowfoot can spend it’s entire lifetime never seeing an open area such as a savannah.

Understanding this important characteristic of both tortoises helps to explain why they both need a 60% fruit, 30-35% greens, 5-10% animal protein diet in order to thrive in captivity.

Here’s my overview of their Redfoot tortoise diet requirements.

Edible greens, high in calcium, simply do not exist in the tropical forest Redfoot habitats of southern Central America and Northern South America because there is no significant geological limestone under-lament to support high calcium plant life.

So, if you feed your Redfoot tortoise a diet designed for a Russian, Greek or Hermann’s, you’re scaling up this factor that causes Redfoot Tortoise pyramiding.

The calcium and protein needs of your Redfoot tortoise are met in the wild through carrion, bugs, mushrooms, and mammal feces – all common items in a tropical forest. Carrion contains Vitamin D3, which all tortoises need for calcium synthesis, and many mushroom varieties contain Vitamin D2, which they can convert to D3 for calcium synthesis.

So, having a 60% fruit and 5-10% animal protein mix for their diet follows their wild diet as much as is possible. If you’re currently feeding them a 70-80% green’s diet, it’s time to make the change for your Redfoot’s health and smoother carapace.

Humidity and Redfoot Tortoises

Anyone who has ever visited southern Florida or any of the Hawaiian islands (Kauai and the Eastern side of the Big Island in particular) can feel the high level of humidity. These two areas of the United States are the closest to the native humidity levels your Redfoot tortoise would experience on a day to day basis in its natural habitat.

Humidity or lack thereof is the second important factor in pyramiding. Your Redfoot tortoise, no matter how far removed it might be from its wild caught ancestors, can’t overcome it’s biological design for a high humidity environment.

If you’re unable to maintain a consistent 60-90% humidity (75-90% is best) for both an indoor and outdoor enclosure you’re significantly contributing to a future pyramiding issue for your Redfoot tortoise.

Redfoot’s, and all forest tortoise species, don’t have the long captive history of Greek’s dating back to the 1960’s and 1970’s, so most tortoise enthusiasts haven’t caught up to their very different husbandry requirements.

If you’re still researching tortoises and the need to maintain that level of humidity is going to be hard, skip getting a Redfoot or any forest species.

Consistent Temperatures and the Redfoot Tortoise

In the dense tropical forests wild Redfoot tortoises live in there are only two seasons – wet and dry. The temperature range in their native habitats will go from 65-70 on cold days in the dry season, to 85-90 during the wet season.

What that means for you is a range of 70-90 year round for both indoor and outdoor pens.

83-88 seems to be the sweet spot for daytime temps and 70-75 for nighttime temps for my Redfoots.

This requirement isn’t hard to meet regardless of where you live, but it’s still factor number three when it comes to Redfoot Tortoise pyramiding.

So, in order to reduce the probability of Redfoot Tortoise pyramiding we need a diet that closely matches the percentages of what they eat in the wild, a high humidity level year round, and a consistent 70-90 degree temperature year round.

Okay, what’s left?

Enclosure Size and Redfoot Tortoises

If there’s one thing all tortoises do, it’s move around – a lot. Your Redfoot tortoise is not a coach potato, it’s designed to walk around and do a lot of it. They rest when they’ve had enough to eat and when they need to sleep.

The opportunity for your Redfoot tortoise to walk around a spacious enclosure, whether indoor or outdoor, is the final piece of the Redfoot Tortoise pyramiding puzzle.

Without going into a long, anatomical explanation as to how, I’ll just say that walking around is critical to having the synthesized calcium being implanted in their arm, leg, and associated bones used for locomotion vs. their carapace.

I’ve written enough about the size and type of enclosures they need and you can find these articles on this blog or on my YouTube channel.

That being said, the larger, more well planted an enclosure is a must so your Redfoot tortoise can move around for 6+ hours a day and explore their habitat.

Here’s a post on Redfoot tortoise enclosures.

In closing, get their diet, humidity, temperature, and enclosure size correct because these four items influence Redfoot tortoise pyramiding.

Posted in Redfoot Care | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Redfoot Tortoise Intelligence is Proven

I came across this article featuring Redfoot Tortoise intelligence the other day and it plays in to my preaching to everyone about having a large, well planted pen – but for reasons that may not be obvious – until now.

Redfoot Intelligence







Redfoot’s are a very intelligent animal and the researchers discovered this quickly when setting up the touch screen testing.

Redfoot tortoise

A large, well planted pen affords you the opportunity to see Redfoot tortoise intelligence in action while enriching their life in captivity.  And if you have a dog, as we do- three in fact, I can tell you our Redfoot’s demonstrate a far greater ability to locate various items than our dogs.

It partially explains why they come to associate various colored items as food, things like strawberries, hibiscus flowers, etc.

Smarter than a do


Lastly, the articles final comment is one I can’t stress enough.  Tortoises are not dumb animals who are happy to sit and do nothing in a 20 gallon fish tank.  You have to provide them a large “enriched” enclosure so they can use their native Redfoot tortoise intelligence and capabilities in order to live a long, healthy life.

Redfoot Tortoise intelligence




Read the whole article.


Posted in Tortoises In The News | Tagged | Leave a comment

Baby Redfoot Tortoises

There’s nothing cuter than baby or sub-adult Redfoot tortoises and the video below is proof.

These are our currently available 18-24 month olds all cleaned up (and how to do it right) and looking pretty.


Posted in Currently Available Redfoot's | Tagged , | 3 Comments