Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Care and Maintenance of the Chaco Tortoise

Dr. Heinz Wermuth, DATZ, 1967. Translated from the German by Andrea Henke


Only rarely does one find members of the Chaco tortoise, Testudo chilensis, in captivity. The scientific name for this species, Testudo chilensis, is misleading, because it is not, as far as we know, native to Chile. It occurs mainly in Argentina and neighboring Paraguay. When the species was first described by Gray in 1870, he mistakenly thought that Mendoza lay in Chile instead of Argentina, thus the misnomer. Sclater corrected his mistake in the same year. However, the rules of nomenclature gave precedent to the name 'chilensis' even though it was based on an erroneous assumption and the name persisted.

Even today, we are not fully informed of the geographical distribution of the Chaco tortoise. While in San Fransico, I saw a specimen on display that was labeled with a Chilean origin. I also recently corresponded with Dr Sachsse who had purchased a young tortoise of supposedly Bolivian origin in a pet store. From the photograph which he sent me, it does indeed appear to be a Chaco tortoise if one can correctly identify a juvenile tortoise solely from a photograph.

Two and a half years ago I became the proud owner of a group of Chaco tortoises. The animals were sent to me by Herman Riegel from Vaiparaiso, who is a generous benefactor of the National Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart, Germany and has enriched our collection on previous occasions. His current donation surpassed all previous ones: 30 Chaco tortoises, including some large adult specimen of a size which I had not previously seen. The largest animal had a carapace length of circa 20 cm [ 8 inches] (by ruler). Some of the animals were destined for other individuals, others I had to pass into other loving hands myself, because I was unable to maintain a large herd of tropical tortoises alone. I kept 9 tortoises, while 2 more regularly spent the winter with mine. Unfortunately, I had no locality data for the animals as Mr Riegel had them collected for him by a third party. I immediately noticed the great variability in color and shape of the carapace. Some individuals had flattened carapaces with strong dark markings around the individual scutes, while others had domed carapaces of a uniform brown color. Between the two extremes, various integrates were to be found. This may be a case of population differences in various locales, but since locality data were lacking, I cannot say for certain. However, the differences in plastron shape and coloration cannot be attributed to sexual dimorphism as I observed individuals copulating during the summer months and both varieties seemed to have male and female members.

Indeed, it is difficult to tell the two sexes apart by visual inspection as Herman Riegel confirmed. Neither the length of the tail nor the distance between cloaca and tail-base are different enough in either sex to distinguish them. Only the general method of looking for a concave plastron, common to all tortoises, seemed to work with the Chaco tortoise. How they tell each other apart visually is beyond me.

Somewhat concerned if these exotic tortoises would acclimate, I constructed an outdoor enclosure into which I moved the tortoises beginning in June 1964. Their enclosure consisted of a circa 200 square meter (219 sq. ft.) grassy area surrounded by a chainlink fence which was grounded deep in the stony soil. Luckily, the lawn was overgrown with dandelion, plantain, clover, and other assorted weeds. The lawn consisted of various kinds of grasses, whose seeds are sold as "Berlinean Animal Feed Mix," which brought back memories of my own native area.

When I first obtained the 30 individuals, I bathed them in lukewarm water immediately after arrival. They drank thoroughly and then defecated in the water. I then released them into their outdoor enclosure where I observed them as they cheerfully marched off, despite their long and stressful ocean voyage. Interestingly, several animals, up to four or five, would form a column and keep this marching order for several minutes, with animals 10 to 20 cm (4-8 inches) apart. These tortoises seem to generally possess a good sense of direction and perhaps even a tendency to socialize. I would find the same animals together every evening in the same place, while others, distinct loners, would have their own preferred spot. Thus, by sunset, it was relatively easy to collect them. At night, I would house them in a small stone building, formerly a laundry house, to protect them from stray cats and rats. Because of their strong sense of direction, I was able to make close observations on their preference for certain spots and companionships.

I'm going to mention an unusual hostile response here. When two individuals meet by chance, and one feels impeded in its progress by the other, it will ram its opposer and attempt to flip it onto its back, in which it is often successful. This behavior is similar to the rival combats between North American gopher tortoises.

My concerns about their ability to find sufficient food were unfounded, for the tortoises soon leamed to eat the grasses which grew amidst the dandelion, plantain, and clover. In the beginning, I thought that they were only accidentally ingesting grass while they grazed on the dandelion and clover but it soon became apparent that they fed on the grass intentionally. I observed the same behavior in Testudo elegans, T. marginata, and in T. pardalis. I observed a large specimen of T. pardalis as it grazed for 90 minutes without interruption. Of course I supplemented their diet of grasses and wild greens with the usual tortoise feed of salads, fruits, and vegetables. They showed no strong preference for any of these foods with the exception of ripe peaches in late summer.

As midday temperatures dropped below 20C (68 F) in fall, it was time to move the tortoises to their winter quarters indoors. Despite the still strong sunlight outdoors, their activity levels markedly decreased and their food intake sIowed down. They would cease eating shortly after noon and move to their evening resting places where they would remain until I collected them in the evenings.

I set up their winter quarters in a small room next to my office. I set up an electric heater on a thermostat so that the daytime temperature in the room was about 25 C (77 F). The animals were housed in an old metal bathtub which measured about 150x75x30 cm (60x30x12 inches). The substrate was a mixture of potting soil and mulch. I had propped the tub up on two chairs, while the heater, at a suitable distance, was directed at the bottom of the tub for a mild bottom heat. Above the tub, I set up two light bulbs of 150 and 100 watts which were on during the day for heat and light. I misted the enclosure every morning which caused immediate activity in my chilensis. Their heads and limbs would emerge from their shells and they would wander about the enclosure in search of their morning meal. They were just as eager to eat during the winter as they were during the summer and showed no food preferences. They would devour lettuce, endive, and chicory, in addition to fruit: apples, pears, bananas, as well as tomatoes. They didn't particularly care for oranges and mandarin oranges, unlike T. elegans and T. carbonaria who especially like them. Unusual is the fact that Chaco tortoises will eat hay. I had placed some hay into their enclosure, having had in mind that the animals might like to burrow in it. I observed that the pile of hay would shrink daily and that the tortoises on occasion would have a blade of hay hanging out of their mouths. I observed the eating of hay in some other tropical tortoise species: T. elegans, T. pardalis, and T. carbonaria. This diet seems to fulfill their needs, as I have neither observed signs of malnutrition nor have I had any casualties. Their summer long stay outdoors, with plenty of unfiltered sunlight, seemed to have protected them from calcium deficiencies. I should also mention their weekly bath in lukewarm water during the winter, for proper hydration and to help them eliminate wastes.

The only disorder which I observed in the group was a kind of hyperkeratosis in two or three individuals where their upper beak would grow noticeable longer and the symphyse would split so that an occasional blade of hay would get stuck there. The animals thus afflicted are not hindered in feeding at all, but are able to feed as well as the other animals and appear just as healthy. I am unable to make any speculation as to why this happened.

Should the tortoise enthusiast encounter the Chaco tortoise in the pet trade, he should not be afraid: they are not problem tortoises and their care is as easy as those of our native European tortoises; as long as he is able to provide them with an outdoor enclosure during the summer, a varied diet, and warm winter quarters. I would, in my opinion, recommend against trying to hibernate these animals. I have not hibernated any myself, as I did not want to take any unnecessary risks with the animals. Perhaps you the reader have already gathered experience hibernating these tortoises and will share your experiences, but please, do not take too many risks.

I cannot conclude this report without giving my heartfelt thanks to the Nation Museum for Natural History in Stuttgart, and its director Dr. E. Schuez for understanding that the work of the museum zoologist does not only rest with preserved specimen, but also in the care of living animals. Both morphology and behavior are the basis of speciation for taxonomical purposes.

The original German copy of this article is long gone, as are, the photos, and the literature citations in the original article.

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