It ranges from southern Panama, Colombia (both sides of the Andes), Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana, Suriname, Brazil, Peru, E Bolivia, Paraguay, N Argentina. West Indian island population may have resulted from over water dispersal (tortoises float well), human mediated dispersal (humans transport them for food) or a combination of both.
This is a grassland, savanna, open scrub forest, gallery forest, stands of Mauritia palms surrounded by savanna, and it seem to be tolerant of forest–edge as well as inhabiting rainforest in low densities in areas with nearby savanna. It has also been found using cultivated land. In forest and forest-savanna mosaics it is sympatric with G. denticulata. Trinidad underwent multiple shifting habitats from having lowlands submerged to savanna, to forest and because it has been connected – isolated and re-connected to Venezuela many times there is reason to think this tortoise was part of the native fauna. It is diurnal. Its diet includes a variety of fungi, plant and animal material, and preferred foods are those easily fermented with a high concentration of minerals. This tortoise feeds primarily on fruits and found 90% of the seeds in scat samples intact, implying tortoises can be important seed dispersers.
Courtship behavior seems to keep females of this species from breeding with C. denticulata; male C. carbonaria approach another tortoise head on and perform a single sideways sweep the head (courting male C. denticulata uses a series of lateral jerks) if the tortoise approached is a male it responds with a similar display, and the behavior that follows may result in a fight. If the animal approached does not respond the male sniffs the cloacal area and mating may follow. Courtship and copulation are initiated by the rainy season. Nesting occurs from July to September on the mainland; clutch size is 2−7; females excavate a nest with their hind legs; incubation 105−220 days, average about 150 days.
Humans are major predators of this tortoise, in Venezuela it is a traditional meal during holy week, and while the turtle is protected in Venezuela and other countries, it continues to be collected and eaten. Other common names In Venezuela this species and G. denticulata, are known as the morrocoy. The preferred English name for this species is red-footed tortoise.