Alberta Western Terrestrial Garter Snake


The western, terrestrial garter snake (Thamnophis elegans) is a medium-sized snake with a fairly robust body and long tail. From nose to tip of tail adults can measure between 460-960 mm and females are larger than males. The head of the western garter snake is large and distinct from its neck. Its crown is black or brownish, depending on which part of western Canada the snake is located. The snake’s upper lip, chin and throat are white or yellow and its eyes are moderately large with a round pupil.

Sometimes the western garter snake is mistaken for the gopher snake or other garter snakes. A standard way to tell the difference between garter snake species is to look at scale patterns. The western, terrestrial garter snake generally has 10 lower lip scales, and eight upper lip scales. Other garter snakes usually have seven scales on the upper lip. Also, the sixth and seventh upper lip scales are usually enlarged (taller than they are wide). At mid-body, this snake has 21 rows of body scales and only a single anal plate. The scales on its back are keeled — ridged instead of smooth. Colors vary with individual snakes, body is grey, olive-green to brown, with pale yellow or brown stripes on the sides and back, with dark spots checkered between the stripes. There are two lateral stripes on either side of its body — on the 2nd and 3rd rows of body scales — that are similar in color to the stripe down its back. In the space between stripes, the western garter is marked with dark spots or light specks. Like its head, its body has a grayish-green or black to dark brown color. The western garter snake has a grey or beige underbelly color that may have dark spots, or a dark underbelly with white flecks concentrated down the mid-line.

Garters were long thought to be nonvenomous, but recent discoveries have revealed that they do in fact produce a mild neurotoxic venom. Garter snakes are nevertheless harmless to humans due to the very low amounts of venom they produce, which is comparatively mild, and the fact that they lack an effective means of delivering it. They do have enlarged teeth in the back of their mouth, but unlike many rear-fanged colubrid snakes, garter snakes do not have a groove running down the length of the teeth that would allow it to inject venom into its prey.  (Text information was provided by Alberta Government Resource Development and Wiki.)

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