Western terrestrial garter snake

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Western terrestrial garter snake
Coast Garter Snake.jpg
T. elegans terrestris
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Family: Colubridae
Genus: Thamnophis
T. elegans
Binomial name
Thamnophis elegans
(Baird & Girard, 1853)[2]

6 sspp., see text


The western terrestrial garter snake (Thamnophis elegans) is a western North American species of colubrid snake. At least five subspecies are currently recognized.


Most western terrestrial garter snakes have a yellow, light orange, or white dorsal stripe, accompanied by two stripes of the same color, one on each side. Some varieties have red or black spots between the dorsal stripe and the side stripes. It is an immensely variable species, and even the most experienced herpetologists have trouble when it comes to identification. They are medium-sized snakes, usually 46–104 cm (18–41 in).

Like many species of North American garter snake, the western terrestrial garter snake possesses a mildly venomous saliva. Specimens collected from Idaho and Washington produced venom with myonecrotic (muscle tissue-killing) effects when injected into the gastrocnemius muscles of mice.[3] Several cases of mild human envenomation with local edema and other symptoms (but without any systemic symptoms) have occurred from the wandering garter snake subspecies, including in Colorado.[4][5]

This species is the only garter snake species with a well-documented tendency to constrict prey, although the constriction is inefficient when compared with the constriction of many other snakes (such as the gopher snake), involving disorganized, loose, and sometimes unstable coils and a longer time required to kill prey.[6][7] Snakes from Colorado populations of terrestrial garter snakes appear to be more efficient at killing their prey by constriction than those from Pacific Coast populations.[6]

Geographic range[edit]

Thamnophis elegans is found in central British Columbia, central Alberta, and southwestern Manitoba in Canada.[8] It can be found in the western United States, as far east as western Nebraska and the Oklahoma Panhandle. An isolated population occurs in Baja California, Mexico.[9]


Thamnophis elegans terrestris with dark coloring

Six subspecies have been identified, although the validity of some of them is debated.[2]

  • Thamnophis elegans arizonae Tanner & Lowe, 1989 – Arizona garter snake
  • Thamnophis elegans elegans (Baird & Girard, 1853) – mountain garter snake
  • Thamnophis elegans hueyi Van Denburgh & Slevin, 1923San Pedro Mártir garter snake
  • Thamnophis elegans terrestris Fox, 1951 – coastal garter snake
  • Thamnophis elegans vagrans (Baird & Girard, 1853) – wandering garter snake
  • Thamnophis elegans vascotanneri Tanner & Lowe, 1989 – Upper Basin garter snake


Thamnophis elegans occurs in a wide variety of habitats, including grasslands, woodlands, and coniferous forests, from sea level up to 3,962 m (12,999 ft). It is primarily terrestrial, although populations in the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains are semi-aquatic.[9]


The western terrestrial garter snake does not lay eggs, but instead is ovoviviparous, which is characteristic of natricine snakes. Broods of eight to 12 young are born in August and September.[10]


The diet of Thamnophis elegans relies heavily on the prey available in the environment, and thus varies due to geographical differences. This makes the western terrestrial garter snake an excellent example of polyphagism.[11] There are two main variants that are most prevalent: coastal and inland.[12] Since coastal T. elegans is found along the West Coast of the United States, it is found near the coast of the Pacific Ocean. On the other hand, if the snake population is considered to be inland, it is found near inland water sources such as streams, ponds, or lakes.

Coastal populations' food sources mainly include terrestrial prey such as slugs, salamanders, small mammals, and lizards. In contrast, inland populations indulge in a semi-aquatic diet containing frog and toad larvae, leeches, and fish.[13] Thus, aquatic food sources are a staple in the inland snake populations' diet.

Coastal snakes are less likely to respond to chemical cues received from fish, which can be inferred by less rapid tongue-flicking when around them.[12] They are also less likely to attack and ingest fish. This preference in diet is so strong that the snake will starve before eating non-preferred prey types.[12] Further, this appears to be genetically determined as this variation in diet is observed in newborn snakes from both populations.[11] When hunting, the Western Garter Snake's actions are chemically and visually mediated on land and in water.[13] Regardless the habitat in which foraging takes place, both ecotypes utilize similar techniques. This consists of attacks that are both aerial and underwater.[12] These include craning, cruising, and diving. However, coastal snakes are less likely to participate these activities.[12]

These differences in diet and foraging behavior between coastal and inland snake populations suggest that the species has undergone microevolution. Due to dietary and foraging differences between variants of T. elegans, it can be inferred that coastal populations have filled a niche in the environment that allows them to no longer rely on fish as a major food source.[12]


  1. ^ Frost, D.R.; Hammerson, G.A. & Hollingsworth, B. (2007). "Thamnophis elegans". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2007: e.T63976A12732762. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2007.RLTS.T63976A12732762.en.
  2. ^ a b Thamnophis elegans at the Reptarium.cz Reptile Database
  3. ^ Jansen, David W (1987). "The Myonecrotic Effect of Duvernoy's Gland secretion of the snake Thamnophis elegans vagrans". Journal of Herpetology. 21 (1): 81–83. doi:10.2307/1564384. JSTOR 1564384.
  4. ^ Gomez, H.F.; Davis, M.; Phillips, S.; McKinney, P.; Brent, J. (1984). "Human envenomation from a wandering garter snake". Annals of Emergency Medicine. 23 (5): 1119–22. doi:10.1016/s0196-0644(94)70113-x. PMID 8185110.
  5. ^ Vest, DK (1981). "Envenomation following the bite of a wandering garter snake (Thamnophis elegans vagrans)". Clinical Toxicology. 18 (5): 573–9. doi:10.3109/15563658108990284. PMID 7273669.
  6. ^ a b de Queiroz, Alan; Groen, Rebecca R. (2001). "The inconsistent and inefficient constricting behavior of Colorado Western Terrestrial Garter Snakes, Thamnophis elegans". Journal of Herpetology. 35 (3): 450–460. doi:10.2307/1565963. JSTOR 1565963.
  7. ^ Gregory, Patrick T.; Macartney, J. Malcolm; Rivard, Donald H. (1980). "Small mammal predation and prey handling behavior by the wandering garter snake Thamnophis elegans". Herpetologica. 36 (1): 87–93.
  8. ^ "NatureServe and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) 2007. Thamnophis elegans. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 6 June 2016.
  9. ^ a b Stebbins, Robert C (2003). A field guide to western reptiles and amphibians (3rd ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. pp. 377–380. ISBN 0395982723.
  10. ^ Schmidt, K.P. and D.D. Davis. (1941). Field Book of Snakes of the United States and Canada. G.P. Putnam's Sons. New York. p. 246.
  11. ^ a b Arnold, Stevan J (August 12, 1977). "Polymorphism and Geographic Variation in the Feeding Behavior of the Garter Snake Thamnophis elegans". Science. 197 (4304): 676–678. doi:10.1126/science.197.4304.676. PMID 17776270. S2CID 38341468.
  12. ^ a b c d e f Burghardt, Gordon M; Drummond, Hugh (1983). "Geographic Variation in the Foraging Behavior of the Garter Snake, Thamophis elegans". Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. 12 (1): 43–48. doi:10.1007/bf00296931. S2CID 34175574.
  13. ^ a b Whitaker, Jake. "Thamnophis elegans Western Terrestrial Garter Snake". Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. Retrieved October 23, 2014.

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