One day in late July I had a chance encounter. I might not have been so surprised if I had put two and two together while picking tomatoes the previous evening. I stretched to reach a beautiful, small yellow tomato only to discover that something else had beaten me too it. One side had a nice-sized bite taken out. The next day I was cutting out brown leaves and I spotted a box turtle, my tomato thief. This happens every year, and I don’t really mind. Then I noticed the turtle was sitting on its hind legs. Huh? What a weird position. Was it reaching for a tomato? That’s when I noticed another turtle shell right in front of the sitting turtle. Ah, of course. I have never seen turtles mating, but I knew that’s what was going on.
Sex in the garden! Sure I know it happens all the time. This is why I have to check my squash plant for squash bugs, my potatoes for the Colorado potato beetle, and my tomatoes for tobacco hornworms. So what’s the big deal? Well, usually I don’t see the act itself. I encountered the baby rabbits in my garlic bed when they were a few weeks old, and they undoubtedly weren’t conceived there. The black rat snake eggs were discovered in my mulch pile with no sign of mamma. I did chance upon two squash bugs mating on my squash plant last week – I put a quick stop to their prolific behavior – but, except for insects, I can’t remember ever seeing an animal mating in the wild. I guess with insects in the garden, I don’t tend to think about babies and life cycles and food webs; rather I think problem. And yes, while the baby rabbits grew up to be a problem because they like my beans, I still feel as if I’d been treated to something special. I know I’ll never see the baby turtles, the female will lay her eggs elsewhere, but I got to see a chance encounter.
I watched for a few minutes, not wanting to disturb them. I have to say that it wasn’t very exciting. There was no sound or motion other than the male turning his head a few times. He saw me, but made no attempt to abandon ship under threat of attack from a giant face peering from above. I caught a raptured look in his eye, rather than the alert look an animal has when suddenly discovered. I later read that box turtle sex relies on chance encounters; perhaps this encounter was just too good to give up. Then, because I was in a very uncomfortable position, I finished cutting the leaves off the tomato branch still in my hand, and retreated quietly to get my camera.
I actually managed to get a photo before the male removed himself awkwardly. He then walked away from the female a few steps and stopped under a thicker bunch of tomato stems. I was worried I’d disturbed them before they were finished, but some Internet searching shows that they’d just continue later if so, and that what I saw was probably the third and last stage of mating.
I’ve seen a box turtle in my garden almost every year. Sometimes one is walking across the garden, heading toward the fence, as if leaving. Other times I’ve found one in the asparagus bed, and later in the season, in the tomatoes. I always lose a few tomatoes to a turtle, and I’ve never minded sharing. But I’ve never seen two at once. Now I wonder if I’ve been seeing the same turtles as either (or both) of the ones today. I’ve had a small garden most years since 2004. It is possible these two turtles have been coming here since then. Box turtles do not mate until they are 7-10 years old. I like to think they like it in my garden and they’re putting down roots, just like me.
Turtles don’t have it easy. A female box turtle may lay 200 eggs in her lifetime, but only a handful will reach adulthood. Habitat loss, road kills – I will stop to help a turtle cross the road wherever logistically safe to do so – and collection from the wild for pets all make it tough for a species that matures late and lays few eggs (2-7) per clutch. And then there’s that whole chance encounter stuff. So I am feeling quite pleased with our property’s available habitat. Including the two turtles mating, I have seen five box turtles on our property since May. The locations were sufficiently far from each other and from the garden for me to assume that all sightings were different individuals. Two individuals like tomatoes, perhaps have been coming to my patch for years, and by chance met this year. I feel somehow a part of this improbable statistic.
I’m glad our species does not have to rely on chance encounters to procreate. I find it hard to imagine an urge strong enough to follow through in high heat and humidity and in the middle of a tomato patch, and with a nosy neighbor peering down.