Group Title: United States Virgin Islands animal fact sheets
Title: Red-footed tortoise
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 Material Information
Title: Red-footed tortoise
Series Title: United States Virgin Islands animal fact sheets
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Division of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Planning and Natural Resources, United States Virgin Islands
Publisher: Division of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Planning and Natural Resources, United States Virgin Islands
Place of Publication: St. Thomas, VI
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00093446
Volume ID: VID00012
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.


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Department of Planning and Natural Resources
Division of Fish and Wildlife
U.S.V.I. Animal Fact Sheet #12

Red Footed Tortoise
Geochelone carbonaria

Class -
Order -
Genus -
species -

- -Chordata
- -Vertebrata
- -Reptilia
- -Testudines
- -Testudinidae
- -Geochelone

+ About 14 inches long
+ Red, orange or yellow coloration on legs

The South American red-footed tortoise
(Geochelone carbonaria) is no newcomer to
our islands. The first tortoises probably arrived
in the Caribbean hundreds of years ago with
Pre-Columbian Indians. It is assumed that these
Indians carried the tortoise along as a food
source while exploring the islands. Indeed, the
red-footed tortoise is still highly prized for its
meat and harvested in some areas of the
Caribbean to this day. These long-lived
tortoises occur on St. Croix, St. Thomas and St.
Red-footed tortoises are protected under
Appendix II of The Convention on International
Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning
that this species may not be exported from its
home country without a permit. Appendix II
animals are not classified as threatened with
extinction, but are considered sensitive to this
danger if international trade is left unregulated.
Although protection under CITES has some
positive effects on the survival of this species,
CITES regulations cannot protect the red-footed
tortoise where it is most in danger, within the
boundaries of its home countries.
The carapace of the red-footed tortoise
usually grows to about 14 inches long, although
a maximum length of 17.75 inches has been

recorded. Adult males, at an average of 13.25
inches (30.4 cm) long, are somewhat larger than
the females, which average 11.25 inches (28.9
cm) in length. They are sexually mature at a
smaller size than the females. Males have a
concave plastron (bottom shell) and have a
lower, flatter, and a more pronounced hourglass
shape to their carapaces than do females. Males
also have longer, thicker tails than the females.
The species name for this tortoise,
carbonaria, refers to the carbon-like color of its
dark brown or black carapace. The dark scutes,
or carapace sections, have lighter patches of
yellow in the centers and around the outside
edges of the shell. Although there is a lot of
variation between individuals, the legs and head
are often colored with patches of red, orange or
They are generally found in drier forest
areas, grasslands, and the savanna, however
they have been observed in a variety of habitat
types, including scrub brush, rain forest and
even developed areas and roadsides. They
generally roam during the early morning and
evening, when it is cooler and during rainy
periods. They generally seek shade during the
middle of the day to escape from the midday

Red-footed tortoises are primarily
herbivorous, scavengers, eating a variety of
vegetable and animal matter. Coprophagy
(feeding on its own or another species feces) is
not uncommon. In its natural habitat, Red
footed tortoise may go for long periods without
a direct water source, deriving all necessary
moisture from plants. These tortoises are quite
fond of hibiscus (flowers and leaves), papaya,
bougainvillea, cactus, aloe vera and many other
naturally occurring Caribbean plants.
Breeding is synchronized with the onset
of the rainy season. The mating ritual of red-
footed tortoises involves some very distinctive
head movements on the part of the male. He
begins by standing side-by-side with another
tortoise and moving his head suddenly to one
side, then returning it to the middle, in a series
of sideways jerking motions.
If the second tortoise is a female, she
will not move her head in response. The male
will move around to sniff at her tail, to confirm
what he already suspects, before mating begins.
Experiments have shown that in order for
mating to proceed, not only do the movements
of the head have to be precise, but also the
coloration of the head has to be correct. Perhaps
the most usual thing about their breeding
behavior is that the male makes a clucking
sound during courtship and mating. The clucks
sound amazingly like a hen; however, they rise
and fall in pitch according to a set pattern.
When the female tortoise is ready to lay,
the nest-digging process begins. Nests are
preferentially excavated near a wall or some
other protective barrier. The tortoise excretes a
liquid to moisten the soil as the nest is dug. The
nest is dug down to the maximum reach of the
hind feet. A female will quite often dig as many
as 3 "false" or unused nests before actually
laying her eggs.
Once laying commences, additional
liquid is excreted. The round or oval, golf ball-
sized eggs may then be deposited rapidly or
several minutes apart, singly or two at a time.
Clutch sizes vary from 2 to 8 eggs, with clutches
of 3 to 5 eggs most common. Larger eggs and
clutches are generally produced by larger and
older females. After laying is completed, the

female shovels soil over the nest with her hind
legs. Nest excavation, egg laying and covering
the nest may take as long as 3 to 4 hours.
During the entire egg-laying period the female
remains in a what might be described as trance-
like state.
The incubation period is generally 105 to
202 days (mean 150) but may be as long as one
year. Once hatching commences, it may take 2
days or more to complete, interspersed with
frequent rest periods by the hatchlings. After
hatching, shell fragments may adhere to the
hatchlings' carapace but will eventually fall off.
Hatchlings are 1 to 1-1/2 inches long. Although
they may appear somewhat mis-happen upon
emergence from the shell, the carapace will
straighten within the first few days. They do not
have any of the toothlike projections on the
edges of the carapace, like those found in the
yellow-footed tortoises. A pinkish or yellowish
sack attached to the hatchling's plastron
contains all the nutrients it requires for the first
week, during which the hatchling will appear to
sleep, or "hibernate," in some protected corner.

What you can do to help
+ Reduce the number of chemicals and
pesticides you use.
+ Remember it is illegal to take, catch,
possess, injure harass or kill any indigenous
species. The only exceptions are for people
holding valid permits from the Division of
Fish and Wildlife.
+ For more information on this and other
animals in the Virgin Islands please visit our
website at:

By Donna Griffin, William Coles 2003.


ST. THMAS, VI 00802
PHONE 340-775-6762 FAX 340-775-3972
PHONE 340-772-1955 FAX 340-772-3227

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