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 Janeiro 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. The C. carbonaria can also suffer from shell rot and something called 'carapace pyramiding'. 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.

 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

 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. I would also like to highlight that, in addition to the wrong diet, dry conditions are also a contributing factor to pyramiding . 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 the problems with the husbandry 'techniques' being applied to this little red-footed tortoise. You see, compared to other captive tortoises in Brazil, 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 and its entire diet is essentially made up of cat food.

This is a problem for two main reasons. Firstly, housing tortoises domestically with cats, or any other animals really, may lead to intestinal blockage due to fur ingestion overtime (thank you Karen for the tip). Secondly, as I mentioned before, these tortoises' diet in the wild is mostly made up of fruits and flowers. If you just have a look at the back of the package of any standard cat food, the level of protein they contain is pretty high. Now, imagine this 13-year-old individual, being fed cat food and housed with cats for almost its entire life. Sad, I know.

Nonetheless, unaware of just how bad her current situatio is, and its impact on her health in the future, this individual seems pretty happy. 

References & Sources:

  • 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.