Wandering Garter Snake


Order:  Squamata (scaled reptiles)
Suborder:  Serpentes (snakes)
Family:  Colubridae ("typical" snakes)
Subfamily:  Natricinae (garter and water snakes)
Genus:  Thamnophis (garter and ribbon snakes)

Scientific Name:  Thamnophis elegans vagrans Baird and Girard, 1853

Habitat:  A wide range of habitats found throughout the western United States, but typically near water.  This specimen was found near a stream near Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Thamnos="bush," ophis="snake," elegans="elegant," vagrans="wandering"

Length:  This specimen is around 30 inches long; maximum total length reported to be 42 inches.
Food:  This specimen has eaten goldfish, minnows, rosy reds and tuffies (both feeder fish), mice ranging in size from pinkies through adult, nightcrawlers, toads, and even bits of hard-boiled egg white (scented with earthworm).  Wandering Garter Snake Range

My friend found this snake in September 1995.  He appears to have been hit by a lawnmower, or met with a similar fate, as his back looks like it's been broken (and subsequently healed) and he has other cuts and scale damage on his tail.

I named this snake "Nibbles," after the obscure game written in Microsoft QBasic and included in early versions of Windows (this game was a LOT like the "Snake" game found on some Nokia cell phones).  He's an ornery little snake, mostly because I don't handle him--and with good reason:  some people have been known to develop allergic reactions to the saliva of wandering garter snakes (scroll down for references).  I only take him out of his cage to feed him, and I use a small snake hook when doing so.
When feeding, I place Nibbles in a standard paper grocery sack and weigh him on a digital postal scale both before and after feeding, to get a feel for how much he's eating.  He generally weighs around 4 ounces.

I used to keep him active year-round, but for the last couple of years I've "brumated" him over the winter months by placing his cage in my garage.

Eating Mouse in Sack
References to Garter Snake Envenomation:

Ann Emerg Med. 1994 May;23(5):1119-22.  "Human envenomation from a wandering garter snake."

Gomez HF, Davis M, Phillips S, McKinney P, Brent J.

Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center, Denver General Hospital, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

Garter snake bites are generally innocuous to human beings. We report a case of human envenomation from the Wandering Garter snake (Thamnophis elegans vagrans). The patient, who was bitten on his right third fingertip, rapidly developed local edema, ecchymosis, and hemorrhagic vesicles. Systemic signs and symptoms did not develop. The clinical picture was similar to that in three previous patients with Thamnophis envenomation in that clinical signs followed a prolonged bite. Thamnophis species have Duvernoy's glands, which may be analogous to venom glands in Crotalidae (pit viper) species. The progressive local effects produced by secretions of these glands may be confused with early Crotalidae envenomation.

Clin Toxicol. 1981 May;18(5):573-9.  Envenomation following the bite of a wandering garter snake (Thamnophis elegans vagrans).  Vest DK.

Following a prolonged bite by a large specimen of the wandering garter snake (Thamnophis elegans vagrans), symptoms of envenomation rapidly developed. Swelling, edema, pain, and localized hemorrhaging occurred but without the subsequent onset of systemic manifestations. The bite recipient was carefully examined and the evolution of poisoning monitored. Depending upon duration of the bite and inclination of the snake, members of this species are capable of occasionally causing mild envenomation in humans, inducing localized poisoning not unlike
that seen following bites by small Crotalidae (pit vipers).

Toxicon. 1985;23(4):719-21.  Human envenomation from the bite of the eastern garter snake, Thamnophis s. sirtalis (Serpentes: Colubridae).  Hayes WK, Hayes FE.

A 13-yr-old victim of a prolonged eastern garter snake (Thamnophis s. sirtalis) bite was hospitalized following development of coolness, edema and ecchymosis of the bitten hand. Although lymphatic involvement was noted, vital signs and laboratory tests were normal and rapid recovery followed. Subsequent asymptomatic Thamnophis bites of the subject indicate that these clinical changes were not allergic.  This case from Delaware suggests that widespread toxicity within the genus is likely.