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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California


Mountain Gartersnake - Thamnophis elegans elegans

(Baird and Girard, 1853)
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Terrestrial Gartersnakes California Range MapRange in California: Red & Gray

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Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake
  Adult, Placer County   Adult, 7,000 ft., Sierra Nevada Mountains, Calaveras County
Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake
Adult with blue coloring, 2,300 ft., Mt. St. Helena, Napa County Sub-adult with blue coloring, Mendocino County near Willets © Stacey Patton Juvenile, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Mariposa County
Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake
Adult, Plumas County Adult, Plumas County Adult, 7,000 ft., Sierra Nevada Mountains, Calaveras County
Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake
Adult, 8,900 ft., Alpine County Adult, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Plumas County © 2005 Brian Hubbs
Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake
Adult, 7,000 ft., Sierra Nevada Mountains, Calaveras County Neonate, 5,000 ft. Sierra Nevada Mountains, El Dorado County
© John Stephenson
Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake
Adult, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Butte County © 2005 Jackson Shedd Sub-adult with blue coloring, northeast Sonoma County. © Luke Talltree Sub-adult with blue coloring, northeast Sonoma County. © Luke Talltree Adult, northeast Sonoma County.
© Luke Talltree
Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake  
Adult, 5915 ft. elevation Warner Mountains, Modoc County
© William Flaxington
Adult, 6,723 ft.elevation San Bernardino Mountains, San Bernardino County
© William Flaxington
Adult, 6,723 ft.elevation San Bernardino Mountains, San Bernardino County
© William Flaxington
 
Mountain Gartersnake
Adult, approx. 9,500 ft., Sierra Nevada Mountains, Inyo County © Mark Girardeau
       
Disjunct San Bernardino Mountains Population
Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake  
Adult, San Bernardino Mountains, San Bernardino County © Philip Brown Adult, San Bernardino Mountains, San Bernardino County © Brian Hinds Adult, San Bernardino Mountains, San Bernardino County © Brian Hinds  
       
Breding Adults
Mountain Gartersnake      
Two adults mating in April in Sacramento County © Laura Najaf-abadi      
       
Intergrades
Terrestrial gartersnake Terrestrial gartersnake Terrestrial gartersnake Terrestrial gartersnake
"Biscutatus" 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. Here are more pictures of this former subspecies.
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.
Adult, 8,000 ft. east side of the Warner Mountains, Modoc County
© Michael Crews
     
Habitat
Mountain Gartersnake Habitat Mountain Gartersnake Habitat Mountain Gartersnake Habitat Mountain Gartersnake Habitat
Habitat, mountain pond in coniferous forest, 7,000 ft. Sierra Nevada Mountains, Calaveras County
Habitat, Placer County Habitat, 8,800 ft., Alpine County Habitat, 8,800 ft., Alpine County
Mountain Gartersnake Habitat Mountain Gartersnake Habitat Mountain Gartersnake Habitat  
Habitat, high elevation wet meadow in coniferous forest, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Mariposa County Habitat, rocky drainage in mixed woodlands, 2,300 ft., Napa County Habitat, San Bernardino Mountains, San Bernardino County © Brian Hinds  
       
Short Videos
Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnake Mountain Gartersnakes  
A Mountain Gartersnake crawls around a pond in Placer County. A small Mountain Gartersnake next to a high mountain pond in Alpine County. A Mountain Gartersnake at a creek in the Plumas County mountains.  
   
These two videos show a Placer County Northwestern Fence Lizard appearing to taunt a garter snake (a Mountain Gartersnake is my guess, because it lacks red.) The lizard keeps moving down towards the snake but when the snake moves towards the lizard, apparently trying to catch it for dinner, the lizard runs up the wall away from the snake. © Rod    
     
Description

Not Dangerous (Non-poisonous)  -  This snake does not have venom that is dangerous to most humans.

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.

Some scale averages: 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.
Color and Pattern
Ground color is a dark olive-brown or black with no red markings.
There are 3 well-defined light stripes on the back and sides:
The dorsal stripe is yellow, orange, or white.
The lateral stripes may be paler. Underside is pale with few markings, and is sometimes darker in the center.
Key to Identifying California Gartersnake Species

Life History and Behavior
Active in daylight. Chiefly terrestrial - not as dependant on water as other gartersnake species, but more likely to be found near water.
Defense
If frightened when picked up, this snake will often strike repeatedly and release cloacal contents.

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.
Diet and Feeding
Terrestrial gartersnakes eat 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.
At high elevations in the Sierra Nevada, Mountain Gartersnakes rely almost exclusively on amphibians for food, mostly Sierran Treefrogs.
Breeding
Breeds primarily in spring, with young born live July - Sepember.

Habitat
Inhabits streamsides, springs, mountain lakes, in grassland, meadows, brush, woodland, and coniferous forest.

Geographical Range
In California, the subspecies Thamnophis elegans elegans - Mountain Gartersnake, is found throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains, through most of the northern part of the state except for the outer Coast Ranges south at least as far as Mt. St. Helena. There is an isolated population in the San Bernardino Mountains.
The subspecies ranges out of the state north into Oregon and to the edge of northern Nevada.

Most range maps showing subspecies of T. elegans, show T. e. elegans occurring in the Central Valley near Lodi. Previously I changed my maps to show T. e. terrestris there based on the one bright red snake from Lodi seen above, but discussions with a herpetologist in that area have convinced me that they are T. e. elegans. It's likely that the wild-caught Lodi specimen was transported there.

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.)

Full Species Range Map
Elevational Range
The species Thamnophis elegans - Western Terrestrial Gartersnake, occurs from sea level to 13,100 ft. (3,990 m) in elevation in Colorado. (Stebbins, 2003)

Notes on Taxonomy
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, and concluded that there was no support for the race terrestris. Presumably, the former T. e. terrestris snakes become T. e. elegans.

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.


Alternate and Previous Names (Synonyms)

Thamnophis elegans elegans - Mountain Gartersnake (Stebbins 1966, 1985, 2003, Stebbins & McGinnis 2012)
Thamnophis elegans elegans (Stebbins 1954)
Thamnophis elegans elegans - Mountain Gartersnake (Baird and Girard, 1853)Mountain garter snake

Elegant garter snake
Boyd's garter snake
California garter snake
Single-striped garter snake


Formerly-recognized Klamath Garter Snake subspecies:

Thamnophis elegans biscutatus - Klamath Garter Snake (Stebbins 1961, 1985)
Thamnophis elegans biscutatus (Stebbins 1954)
Thamnophis elegans biscutatus - Klamath garter snake (Cope 1883)

Cope's garter snake

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
Not known to be threatened, but gartersnakes have been negatively impacted by competition with introduced bullfrogs and non-native fish in some areas. High-altitude populations of this snake may decline if populations of high-altitude frogs continue to decline.
Taxonomy
Family Colubridae Colubrids Oppel, 1811
Genus Thamnophis North American Gartersnakes Fitzinger, 1843
Species elegans Western Terrestrial Gartersnake (Baird and Girard, 1853)
Subspecies

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

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"

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

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. terrestris - Coast Gartersnake
T. e. vagrans - Wandering 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
California Department of Fish and Wildlife

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, 1957.

Conservation Status

The following status listings are copied from the 2017 Special Animals List and the 2017 Endangered and Threatened Animals List which are published by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

If no status is listed here, the animal is not included on either CDFW list. This most likely indicates that there are no serious conservation concerns for the animal. To find out more about an animal's status, you can go to the NatureServe and IUCN websites to check their rankings.

Check here to see the most current complete lists.


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
NatureServe Global Ranking
NatureServe State Ranking
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
IUCN

 

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