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and Reptiles of California


Giant Gartersnake - Thamnophis gigas

Fitch, 1940
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Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake
Adult, Yolo County. © Gary Nafis. Specimen courtesy of Glen Wylie, USGS
Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake
Adults, Yolo County. © Gary Nafis. Specimen courtesy of Glen Wylie, USGS
Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake
Adults, Yolo County. © Gary Nafis. Specimen courtesy of Glen Wylie, USGS
Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake
Adult, Yolo County, © Gary Nafis.
specimen courtesy of Glen Wylie, USGS
Adult, Yolo County. © Gary Nafis.
Specimen courtesy of Patrick Viehoever & Becky, USGS
Sub-adult with red coloring, Sutter County. © Richard Porter
Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake
Adult Sutter County © Richard Porter Adult Sutter County © Richard Porter Adult Sutter County © Richard Porter
Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake Giant Gartersnake hunt  
Adult, observed foraging in an agricultural conduit, Sacramento County USGS researcher checking a trap
for a Giant Gartersnake study.

 
Feeding
Giant Gartersnake hunt Giant Gartersnake hunt Giant Gartersnake hunt Giant Gartersnake hunt
Series of photos of an adult Giant Gartersnake eating a sunfish, Sutter County © Richard Porter

Habitat
Giant Gartersnake Habitat Giant Gartersnake Habitat Giant Gartersnake Habitat Giant Gartersnake Habitat
Agricultural canal habitat, Yolo county Agricultural canal habitat, Yolo county Habitat, agricultural canal,
Sacramento County
Habitat, agricultural canal in rice fields,
Sacramento County
Giant Gartersnake Habitat Giant Gartersnake Habitat Giant Gartersnake Habitat  
Riparian habitat, rice field,
Sacramento County


Agricultural canal habitat, Yolo County Agricultural canal habitat, Sutter County
© Richard Porter
 
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
The largest species of gartersnake, adults from 36 - 65 inches long (91 - 165 cm). Snakes encountered are typically 36 - 48 inches in length (91 - 122 cm). Neonates are 8.5 - 11.5 inches long (22 - 29cm).
Appearance
A large snake with with keeled dorsal scales and a head slightly wider than the neck. Ground color is brown or olive to black. There is typically a yellowish dorsal stripe, a light yellowish stripe on each side, and two rows of dark blotches on the sides. Snakes at the northern end of the range in the upper Sacramento Valley tend to have distinct stripes and a dark ground color. Snakes in the San Joaquin Valley may also have indistinct stripes or no stripes, creating a checkered appearance. The underside is light brown or light grayish.
Key to Identifying California Gartersnake Species
Behavior
HIghly aquatic. Active during daylight, and at night in hot weather. Secretive and difficult to approach, this snake will quickly drop into the water from its basking site and dive to the bottom before the observer can get close. This behavior probably derives from the habitat of this snake which is often open and treeless and the presence of many airborne predators such as egrets, herons, and hawks.

Emerges from overwintering sites in March. Basks on vegetation near water in spring, and utilizes animal burrows and vegetation piles during hotter weather. Some snakes active until October. Overwinters in animal burrows.

When threatened or picked up, this snake will release its cloacal contents and excrete a foul-smelling musk.
Diet
Feeds primarily on aquatic fish, frogs and tadpoles. Historical prey has been extirpated in much of this snake's range, leaving it to consume introduced fish and bullfrogs.
Reproduction
Mating takes place soon after emergence in the Spring. Females bear live young from July through early September.
Range
Endemic to California.

Historically, this snake ranged from Kern County north along the Central Valley to Butte County, with a gap in the central part of the valley. Currently, ranges from Glenn County to the southern edge of the San Francisco Bay Delta, and from Merced County to northern Fresno County, apparently no longer occuring from south of northern Fresno County.
Habitat
Found primarily in marshes, sloughs, drainage canals, and irrigation ditches, especially around rice fields, and occasionally in slow-moving creeks. Prefers locations with vegetation close to the water for basking. From sea level to 400 ft. (122 m).
Taxonomic Notes
Formerly classified as a subspecies of Thamnophis ordinoides, and later of Thamnophis couchii. Formerly recognized as a full species by Rossman and Stewart in 1987.
Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
Apparently absent from an estimated 98 percent of former habitat in the San Joaquin Valley. Listed as a threatened species due to loss of habitat and introduced predatory fish. This snake's habitat has been destroyed and seriously fragmented largely due to the loss of or degredation of wetlands in the Central Valley due to an extensive system of dams in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and dikes and draining for agriculture.

Protected waterfowl habitats in wildlife refuges are an important source of habitat for this snake, but they do not necessarily provide good habitat for this snake when they are flooded in winter and drained in summer, the opposite of this snake's needs, which resulted from the summer flooding of valley wetlands due to snow melt from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and their drying up in winter. Rice fields and irrigation ditches, which are both flooded in summer, are now providing good habitat for this snake.

Pesticide and fertilizer runoff from agriculture are also responsible for killing some of this snake's prey, including native Red-legged frogs. Grazing of vegetation along water sources also threatens this snake. Introduced watersnakes (Nerodia) in the Folsom area could possibly threaten this snake if they were to spread downriver into the valley.

Taxonomy
Family Colubridae Colubrids Oppel, 1811
Genus Thamnophis North American Gartersnakes Fitzinger, 1843
Species


gigas Giant Gartersnake Fitch, 1940
Original Description
Thamnophis gigas - Fitch, 1940 - Univ. California Publ. Zool., Vol. 44, p. 69

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
gigas
- Latin - giant, immense - refers to the relatively large size

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

Alternate Names
Giant 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. e. elegans - Mountain 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
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.

Thelander, C. G., ed. Life on the Edge: A Guide to California's Endangered Natural Resources Volume I: Wildlife.
Santa Cruz, California. Biosystems Books, 1994.

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.

Karen J. Miller, Kelly Hornaday, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office and
The Giant Garter Snake Recovery Team. DRAFT RECOVERY PLAN FOR THE GIANT GARTER SNAKE (Thamnopsis gigas). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1999)

Glenn D. Wylie and Michael L. Casazza. Investigations of Giant Garter Snakes in the Natomas Basin: 2001 Field Season.
USGS-BRD, Western Ecological Research Center Dixon Field Station
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.



Organization
Status Listing
U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) FT - 10/20/93 Threatened
California Endangered Species Act (CESA) ST - 7/27/71 Threatened
California Department of Fish and Wildlife None
Bureau of Land Management None
USDA Forest Service None

 

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