Malti in the Wild

Malti is a red-foot tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria).

[Just to clarify in case you’re new to all this, tortoise = land turtle.]

When I first brought her home, I was vaguely aware that her kind had not always been kept as pets.

During our 15-minute hand-off meeting (I brought the cash, he brought the reptile), her breeder made some brief mention of her being a “tropical reptile” and may have also casually tossed in something about “South America.”

So that pretty much summed up my knowledge of her history and background for our first several months together.

Happily, I have since added to these insights, in service to ensuring Malti has the proper habitat, victuals and enrichment for her needs in captivity.

My gorgeous girl at 22 months, basking in a comfy fresh crop of blooming clover.

Here is an overview of what I know today (for more in-depth intel, check out the recommended books & websites in Resources):

Country of origin: South America + Caribbean Islands.

Specific regions: Panama, Guyana, French Guiana, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Venezuela, Suriname, Colombia, Argentina.

Habitat: Dry grasslands, dense forested areas, humid tropical forests.

A word about water: Unlike “water turtles” (the kind that live in and near deeper bodies of water), most land tortoises are NOT good swimmers and can easily drown in deeper water!

Climate: Since red-foots have been found in many different areas throughout South America, their natural habitat can range from somewhat dry and arid (dry grasslands) to moderately hot and humid (dense forested areas) to intensely humid and hot (tropical forests).

Diet: Omnivorous. Very ripe fruits, flowers, greens, carrion, bugs, fungi, moss (read lots more on this topic in Munchies).

Temperature: For babies, the range should be kept to a strict 70 degrees Fahrenheit to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, with one basking area of 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit. For adults (the age when they reach sexual maturity for breeding-see below), they can tolerate a range from 60 degrees Fahrenheit to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with the same 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit for a basking spot (read lots more on this topic in Habitat).

Vision: Amazing. Red-foots can see UV light like birds, and have 4 photoreceptors in their eyes (humans have 3).

Smell: Excellent. Their nose is one of the chief ways they sense their environment and find food in the wild.

Hearing: Not so great. They can hear low frequencies, including the lower spectrum of the human voice.

Sensitivity: The shell of a red-foot has the same sensitivity as a human being’s fingernails. The skin is just as sensitive as our skin.

Voice: Red-foot females generally do not make sounds; males (and the occasional female) will often make clucking, grunting or wheezing sounds when mating.

Intellect: Red-foot torts are SMART. They learn fast and have outperformed dogs and matched chimps, black bears, rats and pigeons in computer taste-touch screen tests.

Size: 12-14 inches in length is the average adult size. However, some red-foots will remain smaller and some will get much bigger!

Gender: Males have a wider, longer tail, a concave area on the underside of their shell (plastron) and a bit of a waist, which makes them look sort of like an hourglass from above. Females have a shorter, thinner tail and no concavity, so they retain more of the round/oval shape into adulthood.

Colors: There is tremendous variation in red-foot colors, although they all tend to darken color-wise as they move into adulthood.

Breeding maturity: In general, red-foots are considered sexually mature (aka ready to make more torts) when they have reached a length of 8-10 inches, 5-6 pounds and 8-12 years. The wide range takes into account both natural gender size differences (mature females tend to be larger than mature males) and size differences due to other factors.

Life Span: Red-foots can live from 50 to 80 years old with proper care.

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