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Red-Footed Tortoise – No Worries – No Cares

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A cousin of the Red-footed tortoises found on some Caribbean islands recently passed away in Australia at the age of 175 years after a brief illness. It is well documented that Harriet, a Galapagos Tortoise (geochelone elephantopus porten) was captured and taken to Australia by a member of Charles Darwin’s crew between 1830 and 1834. She died in June 2005.

Another cousin of our Red-footed tortoise, Tu’i Malila, a Madagascar radiated tortoise (geochelone radiata), lived to the age of 188 years. Tui’i hatched somewhere around 1777 and was taken to Tonga by Captain Cook who presented her to the royal family. Tui’i Malila was cared for by the royal family until her death in 1965. During her life with several generations of Tongan royalty she was introduced as a revered member of the royal family to Queen Elizabeth.

Adwaita, an Aldabra (geochelone gigantean) tortoise from the Aldabra Atoll passed away in India, March 2006. While there is a dispute regarding his age soon to be settled by carbon dating his shell, historical records indicate he was 250-256 years old. Adwaita was a gift to the East India Company in the 18 th century. If carbon dating confirms Adwaita’s age as 250+ years, he will hold the record as the longest lived animal ever documented.

The Caribbean Red-footed tortoise (geochelone carbonaria) is native to Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Venezuela, and the Guianas. When indigenous peoples migrated from South America to the Lesser Antilles they brought with them the Red-footed tortoise, both as pets and food. During the 15 th or 16 th centuries, Caribs trading with the Tainos introduced the South American Red-footed tortoise to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

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Red-Footed Tortoise
By Peculiar mr. Hup – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90745149

Compared to the Galapagos tortoise that can reach six feet in length and weigh up to 660 pounds, the Red-footed tortoise seems rather small, reaching a maximum length of 20 inches and 21 pounds; however, with its dome-backed carapace, the Red-footed tortoise is an impressive animal. As with all tortoises (land based) and turtles/terrapins (marine based), the carapace consists of segments or plates known as scutes. The scutes are further separated into central (midline) scutes surrounded by the costal or side plates. The edging plates are known as the marginal and supracaudal plates.

The central and costal scutes on the Red-footed tortoise are ringed in dark brown with raised, yellowish centers. Interestingly, the Red-footed tortoise is the only tortoise with a “waist”. As they mature, living up to 50 years, the carpaces of both males and females develop slight but noticeable constrictions mid-shell giving them the appearance of waists. Enlarged, brilliant red scales scattered about their dark legs and feet gave them their common name. Their heads are also decorated with enlarged reddish or yellowish scales making them, regrettably, particularly attractive to the pet trade.

Sexual maturity is dependant upon environmental factors; however, due to their slow growth, it is believed that Red-footed tortoises do not normally breed until they are eight to12 years old. Solitary and often resting for days without eating or drinking, during the rainy season males approach one of their own kind and begin jerking their heads from side to side. If the other tortoise jerks its head the approaching male knows he has encountered another male and a battle ensues as each attempts to flip the other onto his back. If the other tortoise does not jerk its head, it is a female and breeding begins resulting in a clutch averaging 3-5 eggs with only 67% hatching after an incubation of 105-150 days. As mating takes place the male Red-footed tortoise emits a series of hen-like clucks in rising and falling pitches that some scientists describe as a song.

Hunted for food, the pet trade, and for the shells that are turned into jewelry, the Red-footed tortoise faces a very uncertain future. In some locations they have all but disappeared and are now listed on Apendix II of CITES. Recently, protected areas have been set aside in which no taking is allowed. Because the Catholic Church recognizes tortoises and turtles as “fish”, thousands are killed and consumed each year during religious festivals. Methods of hunting the Red-footed tortoise include burning fields and scrub where the slow moving tortoises are roasted alive.

Venezuela has established a captive breeding program using over 1,000 adult tortoises rescued from markets and poachers. These rescued tortoises produce about 5,000 eggs per year that are artificially incubated with the hatchlings sold as pets around the world. Not only is this program protecting the dwindling wild population from the pet trade, the monies generated fund endangered species projects as well.

Here in the Caribbean islands, the Red-footed tortoise, considered a delicacy, is still eaten by some. Hunting, irresponsible habitat destruction, pollution, and the taking of live, wild tortoises by illegal pet traders are causing our populations to decline at an alarming rate. And the wild-caught Red-footed tortoises’ new owners soon find them dead because they do not adapt well to captivity.

The first Red-footed tortoise I encountered here in the Caribbean was over three years ago. He was crossing a well-traveled road so I carried him some distance into the bush. I did not see another Red-footed tortoise until two months ago when I was thrilled to see the one I’d moved off the road; identifying him from distinctive damage to his supracaudal scutes. Judging from his size, he is a very old Red-legged tortoise. Not a week after finding my old friend again, I found a much smaller Red-legged tortoise in the same area giving me hope for my old friend who still sings his mating song.

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Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.

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