Almost everyone can identify a “garter snake” in Nevada!
But here’s the problem:
There are multiple species and sub-species of garter snakes! Therefore, figuring out the identity of the SPECIFIC snake you are observing can be challenging. This is especially true since many of them have similar appearances and behaviors.
Today, you are going to learn about 3 garter snake species in Nevada!
- *Just a quick note – to be officially considered a garter snake, the species must be in the genus Thamnophis*
#1. Terrestrial Garter Snake
- Thamnophis elegans
- Adults range from 18 to 41 inches in length.
- Most adults have three yellow, light orange, or white stripes; one down their back and two down their sides.
- Coloration is widely variable. Individuals may be brownish or greenish. Some have red and black spots between the stripes, and occasionally all black individuals are found.
This garter snake can be difficult to identify in Nevada!
Even trained herpetologists have issues! Its coloration varies widely, and there are believed to be 6 subspecies, although scientists still debate this.
Terrestrial Garter Snakes occupy various habitats, including both grasslands and forests. They can even be found in mountainous areas up to 13,000 feet above sea level. As the name suggests, they’re primarily found on land. But interestingly, these garter snakes can swim well!
This species is the only garter snake in Nevada with a tendency to constrict prey! Most garter snakes grab their prey quickly and just swallow, rubbing their prey against the ground if necessary.
Terrestrial Garter Snakes aren’t aggressive or dangerous, but they do possess mildly venomous saliva! It can cause a muscle infection or even kill some muscle tissue. Most bites on humans just cause pain and some swelling.
#2. Valley Garter Snake
- Thamnophis sirtalis fitchi
- Adults range from 18 to 55 inches in length.
- Coloration is brown to black with three yellow stripes; one down the back and one down each side.
- Pronounced red bars between the yellow stripes. Yellowish chin, jaw, and belly, and a black head, which often has red sides.
- Subspecies of the Common Garter Snake.
Valley Garter Snakes are found in various habitats, including forests, wetlands, scrublands, fields, shorelines, and rocky areas. They’re also well adapted to humans and are often found in urban areas.
Look for these garter snakes in western Nevada under rocks, logs, and other objects, which they use for cover and thermoregulation. During the winter, they hibernate, often communally below the frost line. They will use a variety of underground cavities, including mammal and crayfish burrows, rock crevices, ant mounds, as well as manmade spaces such as foundations and cisterns.
When disturbed, Valley Garter Snakes will try to escape into the water and are excellent swimmers. If captured, be prepared for them to release musk and feces onto your hands! They may also strike, but only if they feel extremely threatened.
The Valley Garter Snake is considered a species of low risk. They are quite common and adapt well to human-modified habitats. However, they are frequently killed on roadways and are sometimes killed out of fear.
#3. Sierra Garter Snake
- Thamnophis couchii
- Adults range from 18 to 38 inches in length.
- Coloration is widely variable and may be olive-brown, dark brown, or blackish. Darker blotches on the back and upper sides, which may be obscured in individuals with darker coloration.
- A light stripe on the back and sides may be present but isn’t distinctive except on the neck.
Sierra Garter Snakes are found in western Nevada in oak woodlands, coniferous forests, chaparral, pine juniper, and sagebrush. They are almost always found in association with a water source such as creeks, rivers, meadow ponds, or small lakes. They are typically located at elevations between 3000 and 8000 feet above sea level.
These garter snakes primarily feed on fish and amphibians and their larvae, including frogs, tadpoles, trout, and salamanders. This species has been observed eating adult Pacific Newts which are toxic to most predators.
Not much is known about the breeding habits of the Sierra Garter Snake. However, the females have been observed giving birth to live young in late July.
They are not believed to be a threatened species. However, the introduction of non-native fish and American Bullfrogs to their range may hurt their population. Scientists are currently monitoring the situation.
Do you need additional help identifying garter snakes?
Try this field guide!
Which of these garter snakes have you seen in Nevada?
Leave a comment below!