Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Snake of Many Colors

The first snake spotted on the Dipper Ranch in 2009 was a gartersnake. What kind of gartersnake? That's a colorful tale.

It's been warmer. The daytime temperatures have been in the 60's, although sometimes it has been in the low 40's at night. Fence lizards appear on their favorite sunning rocks and startle you by zipping around every bush and rustling in the winter's carpet of brown leaves. You suddenly remember - we've been reptile-less for the last few months. So, when are the snakes going to appear?

Reptiles are basically immobilized in cold temperatures. Rattlesnakes, for example, are unable to move when temperatures are 46 degrees F or less (Klauber). Even in the mild winters of the central California coast, no amount of sunbathing or lizard push-ups can help the reptiles efficiently recalibrate their ectothermic bodies (casually referred to as cold-blooded). Instead, reptiles hibernate during the cold winter months, usually underground where the temperature extremes are somewhat insulated by the great mass of surrounding earth.

Snakes may hole up alone or with other snakes of same or different species. When the warmer weather arrives, they may spend several days sunning at the entrance of their winter den before heading off to find the spring crop of baby rodents, rabbits, birds and insects.

With this coldblooded cycle in mind, I started checking the ranch springboxes (aka the snake-o-meters) more frequently. On the first Sunday in April, I found this lovely 23-inch long gartersnake in the middle of the main springbox. To retrieve it from the 5-foot depth of the vault, I had to belly flop onto the concrete sill and flip it with the Gentle Giant snake tongs into the muslin net I was holding in front of its nose with the other hand.

We have 3 to 4 species of gartersnakes in the Santa Cruz Mountains. They're mediumllly (when writing about snakes, you are allowed to use words with extra 'l's in them) slender snakes with long, usually colorful stripes down the length of their bodies.

A hint about gartersnake identification: there are about a zilllllion gartersnakes in the world. There are disagreements among herpetologists about the number of gartersnake species, subspecies and just plain regional variations, and how to identify, classify and name them, and you get the feeling these folks spend a lot of time gazing at these colorful snakes mesmerizing themselves.

The Sunday gartersnake came with these clues. It had a yellow stripe down its back, and then further down its side, a black stripe that checkered into a red stripe, and then another black stripe. The snake had a light blue-greenish belly with orange blotches and a dark brown color on the top of its head. And 8 upper labials (scales above the jaw) on each side. So, I think it is a coast gartersnake in the western terrestrial gartersnake group. I should have checked the shape of a pair of scales under the chin, but while holding the snake in one hand and camera in the other, I couldn't get the snake to look up for me. Something about examining snakes, I always feel like I need another hand even though they get by with none.

This snake had an irregular red blotch across its dorsal yellow stripe 10 inches back from its nose. This might be a prior injury. I photographed and measured this irregularity as a possible way to identify the snake if it shows up again.

Two other gartersnake subspecies occur in the Santa Cruz Mountains that look somewhat like the coast gartersnake, but I have not seen them yet on the Dipper Ranch. The San Francisco gartersnake only occurs in the San Francisco peninsula, is listed on the Federal and California endangered species lists, and has been found on nearby properties. Compared to the coast gartersnake, the San Francisco gartersnake has a bright red head, its dorsal stripe is usually turquoise instead of yellow, and it has 7 upper labials. Closely related to the later is the California red-sided gartersnake, whose red sides are more spotty than striped, and it doesn't have the brilliant turquoise.

If this seems likes a whirl of colors, it is confusing, so either enjoy the wondrous mysteries of nature or stop reading the Dipper Blog right now and go to the California Herps website. This excellent website has many photos, patient descriptions, audio and video clips, and the contributions are made, reviewed and updated by many western experts. As a botanist, I am constantly awed by the valuable and attractive information at this herptofauna (reptiles and amphibians) site.

Gartersnakes are generally found in or near water, so I took Sunday's beauty to the nearby Woods Pond where I still hear treefrogs, a tasty spring meal. When I first released this coast gartersnake, it practiced a snake yoga pose known as the Hydee-Head wherein you tuck your head under several coils in order to regain your composure. This snake had an interesting twist to the pose by curling and raising its tail tip about an inch off the ground. Perhaps this was a decoy so that any predators would not initially strike its more vulnerable core body, or perhaps with 23 inches of body to arrange, it just forgot about the tip.

After 5 minutes of the Hydee-Head pose, the snake lifted its head for several more minutes of contemplation. Then it uncoiled itself and stretched out towards the pond. As you can see in the last few photos, its stripes, which were so bright and lovely against the sky in my gloved hands, actually blend quite well when woven among the pond vegetation, mud and water.

--- Where did that snake go? ---
(Give up? It's in the center of the photo. See enlargement of photo below.)

See also:
coast gartersnake (Thamnophis elegans terrestris)
San Francisco gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia)
California red-sided gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis infernalis)

Laurence M. Klauber, Rattlesnakes, Their Habits, Life Histories, & Influence on Mankind, abridged edition, University of California Press, 1982.
Robert C. Stebbins, Western Reptiles and Amphibians, 2003.


  1. This is an interesting post. I found a garter snake sunning in the mulch under my husband's hammock. Boy, he didn't like that at But when I tried to ID it with a guide, I couldn't as there were too many. I am not going to tell him that there are probably more snakes around the pond and that the hot mulch is a great place to warm Michelle

  2. I just found this website that helps identify gartersnakes from other states. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on your state, then look at list but it doesn't have photos yet. Good luck.

  3. Normally writers use extra esses ("ssssssssss") when writing about snakes. But I can see how extra llllllls work. Good show.

  4. How cool! I stopped by from Pioneer Woman's comment form about the snakes... Glad y'all are of the mind not to kill every single one you see

  5. Yah, that crowd has many folks who fear snakes. I understand since I used to feel that way. I thought I ran over a sunning yellow-bellied racer today but when I swerved, parked and ran back up the driveway, it seemed okay. It "raced" away when I tried to catch it, so I was relieved that I missed this beautiful and swift creature. Guess I've turned around when it comes to snakes. I'm going to drive slower on that part of the driveway.


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