The Tortoise Club

The Redfoot Tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonarius) and the Yellowfoot Tortoise (Chelonoidis denticulatus) are species of tortoise found primarily in the forests of South America. The Cherry Head Tortoise is a smaller variation of the Redfoot that is found in Southern Brazil. All three of these animals, collectively referred to as “Forest” tortoises, are great options as pets as they do not get to the size of certain desert species and do not require the same outdoor enclosure size. This is not to say that they do not need ample space; expect to house an adult in an enclosure no smaller than 32 ft2 with walls at least 16” high, preferably outside. If this is not feasible, there are other tortoise species that can be housed in a smaller space into adulthood.

Forest tortoises occupy a large area in South America, ranging from Panama, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, Guiana, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, parts of Argentina, and as far south as Bolivia. These species are most commonly observed around the perimeter of the Amazon Rainforest. They are also found on many Caribbean islands, though it is believed that they were intentionally brought to these areas in the 17th century as a food source.

Proper Diet

While most tortoise species are herbivores, forest species are omnivores and benefit from certain foods that would be harmful to other species; notably protein and fruit. Because of their large natural ranges, the diets in the wild may change between the species, not only based on the region, but based on the season. However, despite these minor differences in diet, it is not commonly practiced that different variations require different diets when in captivity. Forest tortoises require a diet mainly of weeds and wildflowers, supplemented by greens, vegetables, non-citrus fruits, and occasional animal protein. Forest tortoises are foragers and do not bask in the sun the way that desert tortoises do, so much of their vitamin D3, needed to properly absorb calcium, comes from animal proteins instead of ultraviolet light. 

Redfoot tortoises have a shorter digestive tract than desert species that can handle well the sugars and carbohydrates from fruit. This also means they do not rely on the slow metabolizing of grasses and hays and such a heavy-fiber diet would not be healthy for them. Non-citrus, ripened fruits such as papaya, mango, plums, and cantaloupe should be a regular part of their diet. Fruits are beneficial for redfoot tortoises because of their high water content. Forest species live in very humid environments with high rainfall, which provides hydration needed to process the protein in their diet. However, over-supplementing fruit can lead to increased parasite activity. 

Redfoot tortoises will seek out foods that are high in calcium over other foods. Look for foods with a Calcium-to-Phosphorus (Ca:P) ratio of 2:1 or higher, such as opuntia cactus pads, dandelion greens, hibiscus leaves, and escarole, among others. 

Heat & Lighting

Forest tortoises require both heat and ultraviolet light (UVB) for proper metabolism and growth. Tortoises are ectothermic, or cold blooded, meaning they do not have the ability to produce their own body heat the way that mammals do. They are also crepuscular animals, which means they are more active during sunrise and sunset when temperatures are not too hot or too cold.

A successful captive environment should provide thermal gradients, or “temperature zones,” which allow them to self-regulate their body temperature. If temperatures are too low, it will cause the tortoise’s metabolism to slow down, resulting in lack of appetite and sickness. In their natural habitat, redfoot and yellowfoot tortoises do not spend an excessive amount of time basking in the sun and instead seek cover in thick shrubs and brush.   

You will need a combination of heat and light sources in order to provide the proper environment. Save the care sheet provided here for recommendations on bulbs, wattages, and schedules. Always make sure the wattage rating for the bulb is correct for the wattage rating of the lamp. 

Humidity is another important factor for proper hydration and shell growth. However, without proper heat, excessive humidity can lead to an Upper Respiratory Infection (URI), which can be dangerous and even fatal, so be sure to keep the temperatures in the ranges provided here. Forest species rely on higher humidity than other species and this can be achieved by adding moisture to the environment. Damp sphagnum moss is a great solution, either mixed in with the substrate or placed directly on top. Young redfoot tortoises love to burrow into sphagnum moss and you might find it becomes one of their favorite spots, so consider adding this to their outer basking area, hide, and shady area. Read more in on the appropriate substrate below. 

Below are recommendations for heat and humidity in different sections of an enclosure, as well as a sample enclosure map. This setup is appropriate for a hatchling and yearling redfoot or yellowfoot tortoise and represents a tortoise table that is 24″ L x 36″ W x 12″ H. Once they reach 6″ in length, they should be moved to a larger enclosure. 

Redfoot temperature and humidity chard


Substrate is the material that fills the enclosure for the tortoise to walk on. While there are dozens of types of substrates, you will want to use one that is organic and does not contain rocks, sticks, plastic, and other obstructions. There are three commonly accepted substrates; organic top soil, sphagnum moss, and coco coir (coconut fiber). Regardless of the substrate you use, it should always be damp and may require adding warm water and turning the substrate daily. 

Coco coir is a very common substrate, particularly for younger tortoises, because it helps keep proper humidity. However, this substrate requires frequent hydration and turning, as it dries out very quickly. Additionally, it can cause issues with impaction if the tortoise is ingesting it, either directly or with its food after walking on it. Pay close attention to this and replace with an organic substrate if needed.

Sphagnum moss is also a great addition to the enclosure as it holds moisture very well. You can mix it with the substrate, leave it on top, or inside the hide. Most sphagnum moss is organic, so it is ok if the tortoise eats a bit of it, however, it should not be eaten in excess. 

See the care sheet provided for recommended brands of top soil and substrate. 

Water & Soaking

Hydration is critical part of caring for tortoises and contrary to what some may think, they need access to clean water at all times. Dehydration is one of the most common issues that leads to sickness, or even death. Many people think that tortoises do not drink water and that they consume their moisture through their food, which is not entirely true. There are three primary ways that tortoises receive hydration; drinking, eating foods with high water content, and soaking.

Although you will not see it every day, tortoises will drink water from a dish or puddle, so you will want to ensure their water sources are cleaned as needed. This may require replacing at least 3-5 times each day for smaller tortoises, as they love to walk over their water bowl and often sit inside. The same is true for larger tortoises as well. This is normal behavior and should not be prevented. A terra cotta pot base is a proper water dish for a young tortoise as it is shallow enough that the tortoise is not at risk to drown if they accidentally flip themselves over.

Hatchlings under one year should be soaked daily, while tortoises over one year should be soaked 2-4x per week. Older tortoises should be given a water source that they can get in and out of and allows them to self-soak. 

Providing Shade

Tortoises are crepuscular animals, meaning they are most active during dusk and dawn hours when the temperature is not too hot. During peak- heat hours, tortoises will spend their time in deep burrows that are cooler and humid. Without access to proper shade, a tortoise can quickly overheat and become dehydrated, which can be life threatening. All tortoises need access to shade to move in and out of at all times. If a tortoise is overheating, take them to shade and place them in a luke-warm soak immediately.


Deep shade is shade without the presence of any light and can be achieved by providing multiple shade sources in the same area. Imagine a deep, humid burrow that is impenetrable by sun rays. Do not underestimate a tortoise’s need for shade, nor their desire to spend a large portion of their time there. Up to 30% of their enclosure should be shaded, A tortoise table, whether placed inside or outside, should have a covered section with a solid top and wall separating it from the rest of the enclosure. An outdoor enclosure should still provide an enclosed space, such as a barn or an insulated house pictured here