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