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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California


Wandering Gartersnake - Thamnophis elegans vagrans

(Baird and Girard, 1853)
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Wandering Gartersnake Wandering Gartersnake Wandering Gartersnake
  Adult, Inyo County. © Seth Coffman  
Wandering Gartersnake Wandering Gartersnake Wandering Gartersnake
Juvenile (in shed) from the Kern Plateau, Tulare County.
Wandering Gartersnake Wandering Gartersnake Wandering Gartersnake
Adult, Mono County © Keith Condon

Adult, Mono County © Keith Condon Adult in an Inyo County canal
© Ceal Klinger
  Wandering Gartersnake  
  Adult, Mono County © Ken Griffiths

 
Wandering Gartersnakes From Outside California
Wandering Gartersnake Wandering Gartersnake Wandering Gartersnake
  Adult, Spokane County, Washington  
Wandering Gartersnake Wandering Gartersnake Wandering Gartersnake
Adult, Park County, Wyoming
(More pics from the Northwest)
Adult, Coconino County, Arizona
(More pics from the Southwest)
Wandering Gartersnakes
Albino adult © Patrick Briggs Amelanistic adult, Bannock County, Idaho
© Patrick Briggs
In some areas, Wandering Gartersnakes overwinter in large groups. Here you can see a mass emergence of Wandering Gartersnakes and Valley Gartersnakes in early May, Lincoln County, Wyoming.
© Leslie Schreiber

Intergrades
Terrestrial gartersnake Terrestrial gartersnake Terrestrial gartersnake
Intergrade of T.e.elegans and T. e. vagrans

Found in northern Siskiyou and Modoc counties and in south central Oregon, this intergrade was once considered a unique subspecies: Thamnophis elegans biscutatus - Klamath Gartersnake. More pictures of this snake can be viewed here.
Intergrade of T.e.elegans and T. e. vagrans from Tuolumne County © Rob Schell

Intergrades occur along the southern and southeastern edge of the Sierras.
  Terrestrial gartersnake  
  Adult, 8,000 ft. east side of the Warner Mountains, Modoc County
© Michael Crews

 
Habitat
Wandering Gartersnake Habitat Wandering Gartersnake Habitat Wandering Gartersnake Habitat
Habitat, creek east side of Sierra Nevada Mountains, Mono County Habitat, small creek, east side of Sierra Nevada Mountains, Mono County Habitat, (a small trickle in coniferous forest after a forest fire) 6,500 ft., Kern Plateau, Tulare County

Short Video
  Wandering Gartersnake  
  Wandering Gartersnakes found beside a creek in the mountains of Arizona.

 
Description

Nonvenomous
Gartersnakes have toxins in their saliva which can be deadly to their prey and their bite might produce an unpleasant reaction in humans, but they are not considered dangerous to humans.
Size
Thamnophis elegans measures 18 - 43 inches in length (46 - 109 cm).
Appearance
A medium-sized slender snake with a head barely wider than the neck and keeled dorsal scales. Ground color is gray, brown, or geenish and there are typically light dorsal and lateral stripes. The dorsal stripe is yellow, brown, or orangish, but black markings on the edges may make it appear irregular or a series of dark and light dots. The dorsal stripes also fades on the tail. The sides are checkered with black markings. Occasionally these markings will fill in most of the sides between stripes. The underside is light with scattered black markings, often concentrated in the center. The underside may also be black except on the throat and tail.

There is a melanistic phase of this snake in the Puget Sound area and in British Columbia. Look here to see a brick red phase from the Sedona area of Arizona.

Some averag scale counts: Average of 8 upper labial scales, occasionally 7, scales 6 and 7 are enlarged, higher than wide. Average of 10 lower labial scales. The front and rear pair of chin shields are equal in length. The internasals are wider than long and not pointed in front. Average scale count at mid-body is 21, rarely 19.
Key to Identifying California Gartersnake Species
Behavior
Active in daylight. Chiefly terrestrial - not as dependant on water as other gartersnake species, but more likely to be found near water. When frightened, this species will sometimes seek refuge in vegetation or ground cover, but it will also crawl quickly into water and swim away from trouble. If frightened when picked up, this snake will often strike repeatedly and release cloacal contents and musk.
Diet
This snake eats a wide range of prey (among the widest of any snake species), including amphibians and their larvae, fish, birds, mice, lizards, snakes, worms, leeches, slugs, and snails.
Reproduction
T. elegans breeds primarily in spring, with young born live July - Sepember. High altitude populations of this subspecies in California might breed later.
Range
In California, the subspecies Thamnophis elegans vagrans - Wandering Gartersnake, is found east of the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Intergrades occur in the far northeast corner of the state in Modoc and estern Siskiyou counties, and running the length of the Sierra Nevada mountains, (although I am not certain exactly where or how wide it is.)

Overall, this subspecies has a very large range, occuring from Canada south into New Mexico, including Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah ,and Arizona.

The species Thamnophis elegans - Western Terrestrial Gartersnake, ranges widely from the California coast north through most of northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, into Canada, including Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and east into the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico and just barely making it into South Dakota, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Many isolated populations exist, including those in the San Bernardino Mountains and one in Baja California Norte, Mexico (the San Pedro Martir Gartersnake.)
Habitat
Occurs in a wide variety of habitats. In California, this snake occurs in coniferous forest, sagebrush, grassy meadows, often in the vicinity of water.

The species Thamnophis elegans - Western Terrestrial Gartersnake, occurs from sea level to 13,100 ft. (3,990 m) in elevation in Colorado. (Stebbins, 2003)
Taxonomic Notes
T. e. vagrans intergrades with T. e. elegans in northeast California in Modoc and eastern Siskiyou counties and in south central Oregon (this snake was formerly classified as the subspecies Thamnophis elegans biscutatus - Klamath Gartersnake. Intergrades with T. e. elegans also occur along the southern and southeastern edge of the Sierras.

Three subspecies of Thamnophis elegans are found in California - T. e. vagrans - Wandering Gartersnake, T. e. e.egans - Mountain Gartersnake, and T. e. terrestris - Coast Gartersnake.

Rossman, Ford, and Seigel (1996) emphasize that a detailed study of geographic variation throughout the range of Thamnophis elegans is badly needed.

Bronikowski and Arnold (2001, Copeia 2001:508-513) found several clades within T. elegans that do not always follow the subspecies boundaries.

Hammerson (1999, Amphibians and Reptiles of Colorado. 2nd ed. Univ. of Colorado Press) synonymized T. e. arizonae and T. e. vascotanneri but retained three subspecies, T. e. vagrans, T. e. elegans, and T. e. terrestris.
Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
This species is not known to be threatened, but gartersnakes have been negatively impacted by competition with introduced bullfrogs and non-native fish in some areas.

Taxonomy
Family Colubridae Colubrids Oppel, 1811
Genus Thamnophis North American Gartersnakes Fitzinger, 1843
Species elegans Western Terrestrial Gartersnake (Baird and Girard, 1853)
Subspecies


vagrans Wandering Gartersnake (Baird and Girard, 1853)
Original Description
Thamnophis elegans - (Baird and Girard, 1853) - Cat. N. Amer. Rept., Pt. 1, p. 34
Thamnophis elegans vagrans - (Baird and Girard, 1853) - Cat. N. Amer. Rept., Pt. 1, p. 35

from Original Description Citations for the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America © Ellin Beltz

Meaning of the Scientific Name
Thamnophis - Greek - thamnos - shrub or bush, and ophis - snake, serpent
elegans
- Latin - fine or elegant -- "delicately carinated"
vagrans - Latin - wandering - Yarrow, 1875: "rightly called from its wide range"

from Scientific and Common Names of the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America - Explained © Ellin Beltz

Alternate Names
Formerly known as Intermountain Wandering Garter Snake

Other California Gartersnakes
T. a. atratus - Santa Cruz Gartersnake
T. a. hydrophilus - Oregon Gartersnake
T. a. zaxanthus - Diablo Range Gartersnake
T. couchii - Sierra Gartersnake
T. gigas - Giant Gartersnake
T. e. elegans - Mountain Gartersnake
T. e. terrestris - Coast Gartersnake
T. hammondii - Two-striped Gartersnake
T. m. marcianus - Marcy's Checkered Gartersnake
T. ordinoides - Northwestern Gartersnake
T. s. fitchi - Valley Gartersnake
T. s. infernalis - California Red-sided Gartersnake
T. s. tetrataenia - San Francisco Gartersnake
More Information and References

Natureserve Explorer

California Dept. of Fish and Game

Rossman, Douglas A., Neil B, Ford, & Richard A. Siegel. The Garter Snakes - Evolution and Ecology. University of Oklahoma press, 1996.

Stebbins, Robert C., and McGinnis, Samuel M.  Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Revised Edition (California Natural History Guides) University of California Press, 2012.

Stebbins, Robert C. California Amphibians and Reptiles. The University of California Press, 1972.

Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Powell, Robert., Joseph T. Collins, and Errol D. Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. The University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Bartlett, R. D. & Patricia P. Bartlett. Guide and Reference to the Snakes of Western North America (North of Mexico) and Hawaii. University Press of Florida, 2009.

Bartlett, R. D. & Alan Tennant. Snakes of North America - Western Region. Gulf Publishing Co., 2000.

Brown, Philip R. A Field Guide to Snakes of California. Gulf Publishing Co., 1997.

Ernst, Carl H., Evelyn M. Ernst, & Robert M. Corker. Snakes of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003.

Wright, Albert Hazen & Anna Allen Wright. Handbook of Snakes of the United States and Canada. Cornell University Press.

Brown et. al. Reptiles of Washington and Oregon. Seattle Audubon Society,1995.

Nussbaum, R. A., E. D. Brodie Jr., and R. M. Storm. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Pacific Northwest. Moscow, Idaho: University Press of Idaho, 1983.

St. John, Alan D. Reptiles of the Northwest: Alaska to California; Rockies to the Coast. Lone Pine Publishing, 2002.

Conservation Status

The following status listings come from the Special Animals List and the Endangered and Threatened Animals List which are published by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.


This snake is not included on the Special Animals List, which indicates that there are no significant conservation concerns for it in California.
Organization
Status Listing
U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) None
California Endangered Species Act (CESA) None
California Department of Fish and Wildlife None
Bureau of Land Management None
USDA Forest Service None

 

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