Wandering Gartersnake

Thamnophis elegans

Species at Risk: Sensitive

Colour can be variable, but typically the body will be a dark grey or brown; there will be a yellow to cream-coloured dorsal strip running down the length of its body along the midline, and a similar coloured lateral stripe running down both sides of the body. Two rows of dark grey or black spots stagger down the length of the body between the dorsal midline and lateral stripes. The belly is patternless and can have colour ranging from yellow, olive-green, or grey. Adult lengths can range from 40 cm to 100 cm with females typically reaching greater adult lengths compared to their male counterparts. The active season is usually from April-October. Mating occurs when they emerge from their hibernacula in the spring and young are born live during mid to late summer; 4-21 young may be born in a litter. Wandering gartersnakes consume both invertebrate and vertebrate prey. Slugs, worms, snails, and leeches make up the invertebrate part of their diet, while tadpoles, frogs, small fish, and sometimes mice make up their vertebrate prey.

This species of garter snake can be found from the coast and interior of B.C. to the southwestern portion of Saskatchewan. In Alberta they can be found in the southern half of the province, occupying portions of the rocky mountain, foothills, parkland, and grassland Natural Regions. They are not always found near water, although they are usually within relatively close proximity to it. Wandering gartersnakes can be found in a variety of habitat types including badlands, mountain valleys, grassy meadows, open forest, wetlands, and riparian areas of streams and lakes. They can be seen most often mid-day during the cooler spring and fall months, while it is more active early morning or evening during the hotter summer months. A crucial habitat feature for these snakes (and all snakes) is a place to overwinter in. Structures capable of satisfying this need include abandoned mammal burrows, rock crevices, and caves. Since snakes are ectothermic they cannot regulate their own body temperature, so the hibernaculum must provide shelter below the frost line to provide adequate insulation from the cold winter temperatures.

Although it can be a common species, populations can be localized. In Alberta they are considered a Sensitive species. Habitat loss, intentional persecution, and destruction of hibernacula are the most common threats to snakes. In the prairies where land-use is dominated by agriculture, wetland drainage poses a threat to local populations. Snake hibernacula are protected under the Alberta Wildlife Act from 01-Sept to 30-April, but are left open to potential destruction during the late spring and summer months. A citizen science program called the Alberta Volunteer Amphibian Monitoring Program (AVAMP) collects volunteer information on amphibians as well as reptiles. Observations of individuals and hibernacula can be submitted to provide a better understanding of distribution, population size, and general status of reptiles and amphibians in Alberta.

External link opens in new tab or windowAEP-Amphibian Monitoring
External link opens in new tab or windowCanadian Herpetological Society
Fisher, C., A. Joynt, R. J. Brooks. 2007. Reptiles and amphibians of Canada. Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton, AB. p 86-87.
Government of Alberta. 2012. Alberta wild species general status listing-2010. Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Fish and Wildlife Division, Edmonton, AB. 242 pp.
Wildlife Act RSA 2000 Chapter W-10

Photo by Kris Kendall