South America presents a very unique climate for tortoise species. Most are tropical to sub tropical forest dwellers. However the desert and sub tropics regions do present a variety of different species of old world species. The ever so popular species along the islands of Galapagos are within these regions as well. South America presents 4 genus, 15 species, and 21 subspecies of tortoises.
Chelonoidis means ‘son of the turtle’, or ‘like the turtle’. There are actually several other members of the genus, but this page focuses on the omnivorous or forest species. The others are several species and/or sub-species of Galapagos tortoises
(C. nigra). You can see the entire Tortoise taxonomy list here on our Taxonomy Page. Here we will concern ourselves with the more common species found in the pet trade.

Genus: Chelonoidis(or Geochelone)

  • C. carbonaria, Red-Footed Tortoise 14in/36cm, forest - May have up to 5 sub-species or species- such as Northern, Northeastern, Northwestern, Southern and Eastern. Also called ‘red-foot’, red-legged’, ‘savanna tortoise’, etc. Several distinctive regional variations that may be separate subspecies or even true species. Especially brightly colored animals from southeastern Brazil are often called ‘cherry-heads’. Red-footed are found in most of the northern half of South America. Panama and Colombia to French Guiana, down to Paraguay and Bolivia. Typical habitats include grasslands, open forests, and rain forests (although they are usually found on forest edges or openings there).
  • C. denticulata, Yellow-Footed Tortoise, 16in/40cm, forest – Also called ‘yellow-foot’, yellow-legged’, ‘forest tortoise’, or the South American or Brazilian ‘giant tortoise’. Local names are generally similar to the red-footed tortoise. Yellow-footeds are found in the South America Amazon River drainage basin, Venezuela to French Guiana to Brazil and Bolivia. Most often found in full rain forest habitat, they can also be found in wet savannah and other areas with water and humidity. In parts of their range they retreat to higher ground as the seasonal floods come in.

There are many areas where red- and yellow-footed ranges overlap, but they are rarely found in the same micro-habitats in those areas- yellow-footeds preferring the wetter, shadier areas and red-footeds taking the somewhat drier areas usually on the edges or openings. It is generally assumed that the red-footed is more adaptable since it is found in the wider variety of locations and the yellow-foot has a much more restricted selection. Both species are strong swimmers, with yellow-footeds often found soaking in water.
Both species like warm, humid climate with plenty of shade. Yellow-footeds generally are less tolerant of hot or cold, need higher humidity overall, and tend to not like much light. The preferred temp range is 80-85F. They can tolerate 65-70F lows for short terms and they do not do well about 90F. Red-footeds are more tolerant of a wider range of temps than yellows. They also require high humidity (80-100%). Young red-footeds can tolerate less humidity as they get older but yellows need it all the time.
These species do not brumate, but may aestivate in hot or dry weather, especially south of the Amazon basin.

  • C. chilensis, Pampas, Chilean or Chaco Tortoise, 10in/26cm, grasslandAlso known as Argentine tortoise and southern wood tortoise, This tortoise’s common name is taken from the Chaco regions of Argentina and Paraguay in which it lives, but the Latin name chilensis is misleading, since the species is not native to Chile. It is native to Argentina and Paraguay, from the Bolivian border into western Paraguay and north-western Argentina. They occur in dry, sub-montane plains, deserts and semi-deserts with scrub and trees, from below sea-level to over 1,000 m

In northern Patagonia, at the beginning of each spring the Chaco tortoise digs short burrows (50 – 60 cm) in sandy soils, in which it seeks refuge at night and during the mid-day heat. Dens are also constructed, but these are much deeper (usually over 2 m), dug in hard soil and used over several seasons. In the southernmost part of its range, this species has been reported to hibernate for as long as five months in burrows or dens.

Classified as Vulnerable (VU), the Chaco tortoise is listed on Appendix II of CITES, limiting and regulating its international trade


Cherryhead Tortoise

Geochelone carbonaria

Galapagos Tortoise

Chelonoidis nigra

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Chaco Tortoise

Geochelone chilensis


Yellowfoot Tortoise

Geochelone denticulata

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Redfoot Tortoise

Geochelone carbonaria