Wandering Garter Snakes (Thamnophis elegans vagrans) will never win any ophidian beauty contests. They are essentially gray or grayish-brown snakes with a black checkered pattern and three cream-coloured stripes (occasionally the side stripes are not visible). To hobbyists enamoured of tricoloured milk snakes or mountain kingsnakes, they must seem quite drab, though their appearance might appeal to those of us who appreciate subtler, more subdued patterns (such as Baird’s Rat Snakes or Gopher Snakes). But whatever you think of their appearance, these are nevertheless very interesting snakes. They are reckoned as being one of the best (if not the best) garter snakes to keep in captivity, and they are probably the least garter-like garter snake north of Mexico.
Wandering Garter Snakes get their name from the belief that they tend to travel further from water than other garter snakes, but in fact studies have found them to be primarily a riparian habitat specialist. They are found at surprisingly high altitudes — they range from the Prairies to the West Coast, and cross the Rocky Mountains. The Wandering Garter is the widest-ranging of six subspecies of the Western Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans), and the only one found in Canada. It and the Coast Garter Snake (T. e. terrestris) are the only two that have any presence in the hobby — the red phase of the coast garter is spectacular and particularly coveted. But the coast garter is endemic to California, which prohibits the sale of all but a few native snakes, and as a result is a bit harder to find.
I have had a pair of Wandering Garters since May 2000, and I have been struck by the differences between these snakes and other garters. One difference you notice right away when handling them. Normally, garter snakes tend to have less muscle tone than snakes that constrict. In hand, garters do not grip (which means that you have to be more careful when handling them), and they don’t feel as strong as a corn snake or a pine snake. Wandering Garters, on the other hand, have much better muscle tone than other garters. Their musculature is not nearly as good as that of my Pine Snakes, but it’s surprisingly strong for a natricine. There are reports that they may employ some form of constriction (though it may well only be a matter of pinning the prey), but I haven’t seen that in my specimens.
Wandering Garters are well known for their diets. They have the broadest prey preferences of any natricine; in fact, they vie with Racers (Coluber constrictor) for having the widest prey preferences of any snake. In addition to the usual garter snake diet of fish, amphibians, and soft-bodied invertebrates, Wandering Garters will also eat any small vertebrate they can find, including mammals and reptiles. This has two implications for captivity. One, it’s extremely easy to get these snakes to eat mice. Mine leap from their hideboxes to grab fuzzy or hopper mice that are dropped into their cages; their feeding response is better than that of our rat snakes, and matches the recorded response of captive Coachwhips (Masticophis flagellum), i.e., nearly instantaneous. And two, Wandering Garters eat other snakes. Captive Wandering Garters have eaten their cagemates, so they must be housed individually.
They also appear to have the most toxic saliva of any garter snake. Garters are not rear-fanged, but they do have a Duvernoy’s gland and some do have enlarged rear teeth. Some people have reported redness and swelling after being bitten by Common Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis), and one herpetologist has even developed an allergic reaction to garter bites. This sounds a bit like the case with bites from Hognose Snakes (Heterodon). If Wandering Garters are worse than Common Garters, I can’t offer any insights from my own experience, because mine have never bitten me. They can be quick and energetic in hand, but they’ve always been tame. In fact, I can’t remember either of them even musking (though the male is more nervous, as is often the case with garter snakes, and has struck through the cage). The fact that both are captive bred may have something to do with that.
I will try to breed my pair of Wandering Garters next year. Stay tuned.
First published in The Ontario Herpetological Society News 89 (Sept. 2001). Since then, my pair of Wandering Garters did breed in 2002, resulting in seven babies born that July. Unfortunately, the male died from internal parasites last summer, parasites he had likely been carrying for years. The female is still alive as of March 2012.