Western Terrestrial Garter Snake

Thamnophis elegans (Baird and Girard, 1853)

French Name Couleuvre de l'ouest
Spanish Name Culebra de Agua Nómada Occidental Terrestre
Max. Recorded Length 107 cm / 42.1 inches
Range Alberta, Arizona, Baja California, British Columbia, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Saskatchewan, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wyoming
Pet Trade Availability ★★★☆ frequently available
Captivity Rating ★★★★ excellent

Note: These species pages are in various stages of completion. Some are basically finished; others are very much under construction. Please be patient while I work on this section.

A widespread and adaptable snake found across the western half of North America, Thamnophis elegans has been recorded from sea level to high elevations. It has possibly the widest prey preferences of any natricine: it will eat amphibians, earthworms, fish, mammals and other reptiles.


Up to six subspecies of Thamnophis elegans have been recognized; several of them are not recognized by all authorities on the basis of recent research.

  1. Arizona Garter Snake, Thamnophis elegans arizonae Tanner and Lowe, 1989
  2. Mountain Garter Snake, T. e. elegans (Baird and Girard, 1853)
  3. San Pedro Mártir Garter Snake, T. e. hueyi (Van Denburgh and Slevin, 1923)
  4. Coast Garter Snake, T. e. terrestris Fox, 1951
  5. Wandering Garter Snake, T. e. vagrans (Baird and Girard, 1853)
  6. Upper Basin Garter Snake, T. e. vascotanneri Tanner and Lowe, 1989

The most widespread subspecies, and the subspecies found most often in captivity, is the Wandering Garter Snake. In the wild it’s found across the western Great Plains and Canadian Prairies and into the Rocky Mountains. In captivity a number of pattern morphs, as well as an albino, have been produced. Moving westward, the Mountain Garter Snake is found in California, Nevada and Oregon, and the Coast Garter Snake is found along the Pacific Coast in California and Oregon. The Coast Garter Snake is also seen in the pet trade: three colour morphs — brown, black and a colourful red — are known.

Two of these subspecies — the Arizona Garter Snake, found in Arizona and New Mexico, and the Upper Basin Garter Snake, found in Utah and along Utah’s borders with Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming — are poorly defined and not recognized by the CNAH.

The San Pedro Mártir Garter Snake is found in Baja California; its common name in Spanish is Culebra de Agua Nómada de San Pedro Mártir.

Invalid Subspecies

The Klamath Garter Snake, Thamnophis elegans biscutatus (Cope, 1883), is now considered an intergrade of T. e. elegans and T. e. vagrans. Dark-coloured populations from the Puget Sound area, once classified as Thamnophis elegans nigrescens Johnson, 1947, are now considered T. e. vagrans.

The Mexican Wandering Garter Snake, first described as Thamnophis elegans errans by Hobart M. Smith in 1942, is now considered a separate species, T. errans.


This is a fairly common and widespread snake. The Wandering Garter Snake (T. e. vagrans) is a species of special concern in Oklahoma.

Captive Care

The Western Terrestrial Garter Snake is considered one of the easiest garter snake species to maintain in captivity because of its wide prey preferences. It should not be difficult to convert a snake of this species to a mouse-based diet, though there are always exceptions. In my experience, feeding response is very good, if not outright ferocious.

These snakes have a reputation for cannibalism and should be housed one to a cage to prevent them from eating one another.

While this species is not necessarily more prone to bite humans than other species of garter snake, bites from this species may be of special concern. Secretions from these snakes’ Duvernoy’s gland may be somewhat toxic; pain, redness and swelling have been reported by people who have been bitten by Western Terrestrial Garter Snakes. This is not a universal reaction — the one bite I have observed produced no such symptoms — but be advised that this is possible.

Western Terrestrial Garter Snakes are reasonably common in the pet trade, at least as garter snakes go. The most commonly seen varieties are the Coast Garter Snake (especially the red morph) and the Wandering Garter Snake. Melanistic wandering garters have been produced.

I acquired a pair of yearling wandering garters in 2000; in 2002 they had a litter of seven babies. (Fortunately, no snakes were eaten during mating or birthing.) The male succumbed to internal parasites in 2003. The female is, as of early 2012, still going strong at nearly 13 years of age. She’s been a great snake: curious and tame (biting only once in all that time), with a constrictor’s muscle tone and a coachwhip’s appetite.

I’m a big fan of this species, which I think is overlooked due to its rather drab colouration (red-morph coast garters notwithstanding). They’re well worth your attention.

If you have experience with this species and would like to share, please contact me.

For general information on keeping garter snakes in captivity, please see the Care Guide.

Articles and News


Bartlett, R. D. and Alan Tennant. 1997. Snakes of North America: Western Region. Houston: Gulf.

Brown, Philip R. 1997. A Field Guide to Snakes of California. Houston: Gulf.

Ernst, Carl H. and Evelyn M. Ernst. 2003. Snakes of the United States and Canada. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

Liner, Ernest A. 1994. Scientific and Common Names for the Amphibians and Reptiles of Mexico in English and Spanish. SSAR Herpetological Circular No. 23.

Perlowin, David. 1994. The General Care and Maintenance of Garter Snakes and Water Snakes. Lakeside CA: Advanced Vivarium Systems.

———. 2005. Garter and Water Snakes. Irvine CA: Advanced Vivarium Systems.

Rossi, John V. and Roxanne Rossi. 2003. Snakes of the United States and Canada: Natural History and Care in Captivity. Malabar FL: Krieger.

Rossman, Douglas A., Neil B. Ford and Richard A. Seigel. 1996. The Garter Snakes: Evolution and Ecology. Norman OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Russell, Anthony P. and Aaron M. Bauer. 2000. The Amphibians and Reptiles of Alberta. 2nd ed. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

St. John, Alan. 2002. Reptiles of the Northwest. Edmonton: Lone Pine.

Sweeney, Roger. 1992. The Garter Snakes: Natural History and Care in Captivity. London: Blandford.

Tennant, Alan and R. D. Bartlett. 1999. Snakes of North America: Eastern and Central Regions. Houston: Gulf.