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Montana Field Guides

Common Gartersnake - Thamnophis sirtalis

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Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S4

Agency Status
USFWS:
USFS:
BLM:
FWP Conservation Tier: 2


 

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General Description
Adult Common Gartersnakes range from 16 to 42 inches in length. This snake has two color variations in Montana. The first has three yellow longitudinal stripes (one dorsal and two lateral) and a black stripe broken by red spots between the yellow stripes. The lateral stripes are located on the second and third scale rows above the belly scales. The second color variation has the same striping pattern but lacks the red dots. In both variations, the background color between stripes is black to dark olive. The belly color ranges from yellow to bluish, and some individuals of the red-sided color variation have small black spots on the edge of the belly scales. The dorsal scales are keeled, and normally there are seven scales on the upper lip. Coloration varies geographically. There are 19 dorsal scale rows at mid-body and lateral stripes on the 2nd and 3rd scale rows (also on row 4 in subspecies annectens). There are 7 upper labials, 1 preocular, and 3 postoculars. The scales are keeled, and the anal undivided. The total length of adults is usually 41 to 66 centimeters (up to 131 centimeters). Common Gartersnakes are around 12 to 23 centimeters at birth (Conant and Collins 1991, Smith and Brodie 1982).

Diagnostic Characteristics
The Western Terrestrial Gartersnake has black spots overlapping the dorsal yellow stripe, and the background color between stripes tends to be brownish. The Plains Gartersnake has its lateral yellow stripes on the third and fourth scale rows above the belly scales, and the dorsal stripe is often orange or red. It differs from other sympatric gartersnakes by the following combination of characteristics: lateral stripe confined to the 2nd and 3rd scale rows (except in subspecies annectens), seven upper labials, tail less than 27% of total length, and 19 scale rows at mid-body.

General Distribution
Montana Range



Western Hemisphere Range

 


Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 1129

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density

Recency

 

(Records associated with a range of dates are excluded from time charts)



Migration
The Common Gartersnake is non-migratory, although it has been observed traveling up to 17.7 kilometers between hibernacula and summer range (Gregory and Stewart 1975).

Habitat
Common Gartersnakes are found in nearly all habitats, but most commonly at lower elevations around water. Females give birth to 6 to 18 live young during summer. They eat a variety of vertebrates and invertebrates. They prefer moist habitats and are found most often along the borders of streams, ponds and lakes (Franz 1971, Brunson and Demaree 1951, Anderson 1977). They may travel long distances (4 to 17 kilometers) from hibernacula to forage in preferred habitat (Gregory and Stewart 1975).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (high, medium, or low) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2001, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species’ range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of “observations versus availability of habitat”.
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were associated as using an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  High, medium, and low habitat quality was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species in the literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignments of habitat quality.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact Bryce Maxell at bmaxell@mt.gov or (406) 444-3655.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: http://mtnhp.org/requests/default.asp) or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species’ known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2001.  The wild mammals of Montana.  Special Publication No. 12.  Lawrence, KS: The American Society of Mammalogists.  278 p.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana’s amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Common Gartersnakes prey extensively on amphibians, especially during metamorphosis (Gregory 1984, Fitch 1965, Gregory and Stewart 1975). The western Montana diet varied little with the season and consisted of (% by number): Anura 46 (mostly Bufo boreas 23, Abystoma macrodactylum 13), Hirudo 41, and Oligochaeta 7. Slugs, birds and small mammals are also taken (Anderson 1977).

Ecology
Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis is noted to specialize in feeding in aquatic systems (Anderson 1977).

Reproductive Characteristics
Common Gartersnakes may mate in fall but most mate soon after emergence (late April to early June). Air temperature may trigger spring mating; mating is most intense at temperatures more than 15 degrees C. (Aleksink and Gregory 1974). Parturition is in late July to August in Kansas.

References
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View WorldCat Record   View Online Publication
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Common Gartersnake — Thamnophis sirtalis.  Montana Field Guide.  Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Retrieved on September 16, 2014, from http://FieldGuide.mt.gov/speciesDetail.aspx?elcode=ARADB36130
 
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