The fawns in the first pic look pretty new (they are almost yearlings now, nearly as big as mom, but still play high speed games of tag through the forest.) The male box turtle is likely pretty old, by deer standards anyway. If he is thirty, he’s just a middle aged turtle, but has well outlived any deer on record.
On the other hand – they’re both incredibly old, beautifully honed designs for survival, woven together with a gazillion other ones in this little fragment of forest.
Box turtles live so long that their current populations may be just a “historical artifact”. That is to say, no matter how abundant middle-aged and older adult turtles are, their numbers only tell us how well turtles were reproducing way back in the day. Baby turtles are incredibly hard to find, but their populations are the ones that count. Of the hundreds of eggs a female turtle lays in a lifetime, likely a handful will survive to adulthood.
Compared to box turtles, white tailed deer are not long-lived. And until relatively recent times they were on the menu for apex predators, so were very good at making more of themselves. They still are – good at reproducing, that is. So a very old and useful adaptation leads to a new problem, not for the deer but for the regeneration of forests.
Box turtles aren’t so lucky with their adaptations. A hard carapace may deflect a coyotes teeth but not a speeding car. And when the only way you find a mate is by bumping into one, declining populations tend to go into a downward spiral.
White tailed deer returned to our urban preserve about 16 years ago, after an absence of over 100 years. They move easily through the city greenspace and backyards, browsing where they like. Box turtles have likely lived on this site for many thousands of years, at the least. They are now rather “boxed in”(forgive the pun) to our forest fragment, and risk death by mower and car if they leave. Fortunately the habitat is varied and rich for them, and we see what seems to be a relatively high population for an urban area.
In our forest revival work, it’s possible we are benefitting box turtles by removing the dense shade of invasives and opening up light filled gaps. These are safe basking and nesting areas, perhaps more sheltered from nest predation than the forest edges. We are likely benefitting deer as well. Though it’s not our intent to grow their population, the proliferation of the evergreen vine wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), an excellent browse, gives them a secure winter diet.
Deer and box turtles – two species, two different population trajectories, but both find what they need in this forest.
All photos are from Beargrass Creek SNP. Watch for more posts about deer and box turtles, two of my favorite subjects!