The Red-Footed Tortoise Turning into a Pyramid (Chelonoidis carbonaria)

Thirteen (est.) year old C. carbonaria named 'Casquinha' raised in captivity in Southeast Brazil | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Thirteen (est.) year old C. carbonaria named 'Casquinha' raised in captivity in Southeast Brazil | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Out of all reptiles in existence, tortoises are one of the most widely kept as pets. This is not surprising considering that unlike other reptiles, they are perceived as mostly docile and non-threatening to humans. There's also, of course, the cuteness factor. Unfortunately, humans seem to be just as uninformed regarding their needs and husbandry as they are of any other reptilian order.

Before I start ranting about 'bad humans', let me give you a brief overview of the Chelonoidis carbonaria, commonly known as Red-footed Tortoise. If like me you too grew up in Brazil, the 'Jabuti-Piranga' as most Brazilians call them, are not exactly rare. Unfortunately, as expected of such a successfully captive kept species, wild populations are decreasing due to loss of habitat and the capture of wild individuals to meet the demands of the exotic pet trade.

Thirteen year old C. carbonaria named 'Casquinha' raised in captivity | Photograph by Caio Biasoli

Thirteen year old C. carbonaria named 'Casquinha' raised in captivity | Photograph by Caio Biasoli

Their habitat varies from rain forests to savanna areas and they can be found through most of northern South America (though going as far south as Rio de Janiero in eastern Brazil), Central America and the Caribbean - where they have been introduced to many of the islands.  Although there's a lack of data to confirm an average lifespan, both males and females reach sexual maturity at around 5 years old. They are diurnal and rather sedentary compared to other species. Although their diet consists mainly of fruits and flowers, they are also known to consume dead and living foliage as well as carrion. As there's a lack of data on their lifespan, it is difficult to specify the size this species can reach. However, sexual dimorphism has been observed, with males being larger than females. If you'd like to know more about morphological variations and sexual dimorphism in C. carbonaria, I have included a great paper published in the Brazilian Journal of Biology in my references below - the paper was published in English and Brazilian Portuguese. It is worth noting that the C. carbonaria is more widely spread in the wild than its counterpart C. denticulada. The paper I mentioned above covers both species. 

Casquinha, a C. carbonaria raised in captivity estimated to weigh 4-5 kg at age 13 | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Casquinha, a C. carbonaria raised in captivity estimated to weigh 4-5 kg at age 13 | Photograph by Alex Bateman

In Brazil, for instance, the C. carboaria is protected by IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources). The sale and breeding of the species is restricted and you could receive a hefty fine for keeping it without the correct documentation. Despite the protection, they are still widely kept as pets illegally. As expected, they end up receiving a pretty pore excuse for 'care' in the hands of most humans. 

As is unfortunately the case with most pet reptiles, many captive kept C. carbonaria suffer from calcium deficiencies and metabolic bone disease (MBD) as well as parasites (internal and external) and respiratory infections. Sean McCormack MVB wrote a very good blog post a while ago highlighting the importance of understanding how to care for your pet tortoise prior, during and after the hibernation period.

Healthy wild C. carbonaria with no signs of carapace pyramiding | Photograph taken by Dr Steve Barten

Healthy wild C. carbonaria with no signs of carapace pyramiding | Photograph taken by Dr Steve Barten

As is the case with most pet tortoises, the C. carbonaria can also suffer from shell rot and something called 'carapace pyramiding'. I wanted to focus a bit on the latter. If you look at the three images above, especially the one used as the header for this post, you will notice that the carapace of the C. carbonaria I am holding is forming little pyramids. This is something that occurs in many captive-kept tortoises and is not reversible. Although most cases, unless extreme, don't pose much of problem for the tortoise, it does give an indication of the conditions in which the tortoise is being kept as well as its diet. In fact, the effects of overfeeding and a high protein intake have been extensively discussed when it comes to the occurrence of pyramiding in tortoises. If you look at the image of the wild C. carbonaria to the right, you will notice that this adult shows no signs of pyramiding. 

The reason I am focusing so much on the 'Pyramiding' issue is that it can be clearly observed in the C. carbonaria individual shown in the first three photographs. The photographs, in fact, clearly illustrate what I observed to be one of the biggest problems with the husbandry 'techniques' being applied to the little red-footed tortoise - the diet. You see, compared to other captive tortoises, this individual has a pretty good life. It has space, seems to be pretty comfortable with its 'territory' and is bathed often to address the lack of humidity issue. However, it also has lots of company. From other tortoises, you might ask? Well, no. It has lots of company from cats. In fact, if I were to anthropomorphise this little tortoise, I would say that it even thinks that it is a cat. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't mind that too much. However, when all it eats is cat food, the pyramiding issue becomes a lot clearer. I mentioned before that these tortoises' diet in the wild is made up mostly of fruits and flowers right? If you have a cat, just have a quick look at the back of the package of their dry food and focus on the level of protein it contains. Now, imagine this 13-year-old individual, being fed cat food for almost its entire life. Sad, I know.

Nonetheless, unaware of just how bad its diet is, this individual seems pretty damn happy. And why wouldn't it be? It is essentially the leader of its own aristocats gang, it gets to bathe every day AND has a human shell tickler at its disposal. For this little guy named 'Casquinha' (translated 'little shell'), life doesn't get much better than that. 'Heroes in a half shell, turtle power!'...well, tortoise power...

References & Sources:

  • Sean McCormack MVB's Blog Post: https://exoticpetvetblog.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/163/
  • Barros, MS., Resende, LC., Silva, AG. & Ferreira Junior, PD. (2012). Morphological variations and sexual dimorphism in Chelonoidis carbonaria and Chelonoidis denticulada. Brazilian Journal of Biology 72:153-161.