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Creature Feature Friday!

Cherry Head Tortoise COMMON NAME: Cherry head red-footed tortoise SCIENTIFIC NAME: Geochelone carbonaria ADULT SIZE: Less than 12 inches long LIFE EXPECTANCY: Up to 50 years in captivity


Cherry head red-footed tortoises are considered a smaller variant of the ​red-footed tortoise, and they're closely related to the yellow-footed tortoise.​ Because they're technically the same type of tortoise as the red-footed tortoise, cherry heads have the same Latin name (Geochelone carbonaria) and almost identical care requirements. Some people believe cherry heads were intentionally bred to be small versions of red-footed tortoises, but they're actually found naturally in the wild and are native to Brazil. They live along rivers and near the edge of forests. As their name suggests, they feature bright patches of either red or orange on their legs and head, and their shell color varies from a light to dark brownish color.


They're fairly easy to care for as pets, though they are a long-term commitment. Expect to spend several hours per week on their feeding routine, as well as keeping their environment clean. They're not animals you'll be able to excessively handle, as this can cause undue stress. But they can learn to be calm around people.


Cherry Head Red-Footed Tortoise Behavior and Temperament

These tortoises are fairly hardy, somewhat shy, and intelligent. Most quickly learn their feeding routine, as well as where everything is in their enclosure. Plus, they are known for their strong senses. They have a good sense of smell, and they typically can feel the slightest touch. Thus, it’s important to handle your tortoise carefully and gently. Over handling can easily stress a tortoise and result in illness or even death. But with consistent, calm handling, these tortoises generally become comfortable around people.


They also can be kept in groups of other tortoises because they’re not highly territorial. But watch out for males competing over a female tortoise, as they can become aggressive and injure each other. They’re typically active during the day but might rest for a while after a large meal. Plus, they generally don’t hibernate but might slow down during the colder months. Still, expect to maintain their care routine throughout the entire year, including regularly cleaning the enclosure, monitoring the heat and humidity, and providing a balanced diet.


Housing the Cherry Head Red-Footed Tortoise

Outside housing is preferable for these tortoises if you live in the right climate. Outdoors, they need a sturdy, escape-proof enclosure with walls at least 16 inches tall and a few inches below the ground to prevent a tortoise from digging under them. Don't use see-through fencing because tortoises can be more enticed to escape if they can see something outside of their enclosure. Moreover, many people add netting or wire to the top of the enclosure to protect the tortoise from predators.


Include a muddy wallow within the enclosure, as well as a pan of clean water for wading. Ideally, the enclosure will have an area with densely planted vegetation, which will help your tortoise cool off when necessary. You also can include a doghouse-type shelter to protect your tortoise from the elements.


If you choose to house your tortoise indoors, you'll need an enclosure that's at least 3 feet by 5 feet. Many people choose to use large plastic storage containers, especially for young tortoises. A store-bought or homemade tortoise table is also an option. A pan of water should be provided at all times for soaking and drinking. And a hide box should be placed at the cool end of the enclosure for a sheltered retreat for your tortoise.


Heat

When housed outdoors, these tortoises can safely live in daytime temperatures that reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as long as they have a shady spot and access to water. They can tolerate some cold, too. But if the nighttime temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, provide them with a heated shelter that ideally maintains temperatures in the 70s. For an indoor enclosure, room temperatures between around 68 degrees Fahrenheit to 80 degrees Fahrenheit are typically fine. Use a heat lamp on one side of the enclosure to create a basking spot at 95 degrees Fahrenheit.


Light

For indoor enclosures, use a UVB light overhead for roughly 12 to 14 hours per day to mimic a natural day-night cycle. This lighting will help your tortoise properly absorb the calcium in its diet, staving off disease. Outdoors, tortoises acquire the UV lighting they need from the natural sunlight.


Humidity

This species is native to tropical areas and prefers a humid climate. Maintain a humidity level of around 70% to 80%. The water pan in the enclosure will help to add humidity, and you can lightly mist the enclosure to increase the humidity if necessary. Regularly measure the enclosure humidity with a hygrometer.


Substrate

Various materials, or substrates, can be used to line the bottom of an indoor enclosure, including peat moss, coconut coir, and paper. The substrate helps to mimic the look and feel of the tortoise’s natural habitat. Many people prefer cypress bark because it helps to retain humidity. In an outdoor enclosure, the natural soil is generally fine, as long as it’s not treated with any lawn chemicals or fertilizers.


Food and Water

Cherry head red-footed tortoises are omnivores and eat a wider range of foods than many other species of tortoises do. Feed your tortoise a variety of fresh, dark, leafy greens, such as dandelion greens, endive, mustard greens, and escarole. Plus, offer other vegetables and fruits, including carrots and clover hay. Do not feed a lot of animal protein. One small serving of moistened, low-fat cat food or lean meat every other week is enough. In addition, a calcium and vitamin D3 supplement should be given a few times a week.


Many owners feed their tortoises every day or two, but that largely depends on the animal's age and size, as well as the variety of food offered at each meal. Consult your veterinarian for the proper quantity and spacing of feedings for your particular animal.


Common Health and Behavior Problems

One health issue occurring in these tortoises is shell rot, an infectious disease caused by bacteria or fungus and presenting as flaky patches on the animal's shell. It's a fairly common but problematic health condition that can lead to more serious infections, and it usually requires antibiotics.


Some tortoises also might develop vitamin A deficiency, which can cause swollen eyes and other infections. Furthermore, unsanitary living conditions often lead to ear infections. Both of these ailments should clear up with antibiotic treatment from a veterinarian.


Choosing Your Cherry Head Red-Footed Tortoise

Red-footed tortoises are popular pets and therefore have become vulnerable to extinction in the wild due to people catching and selling them. You should never purchase a wild-caught tortoise; instead, seek out a reputable breeder or rescue organization. Expect to pay around $200 to $500 for hatchlings and young tortoises. Be sure to ask about the tortoise's health history. And select a tortoise that is alert with bright eyes. Lethargy or any discharge around the eyes, nose, or mouth could be a sign of disease, such as a respiratory infection.


Similar Species to the Cherry Head Red-Footed Tortoise

If you’re interested in similar pets, check out:


  • Sulcata tortoise

  • Hermann's tortoise

  • Greek tortoise


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