Garter Snakes

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Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis), Columbia, Missouri. Photographed after disturbance [4]

A juvenile garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) out and about on the warmest day of spring so far. This species is immensely successful throughout the Nearctic, having diversified into a plethora of subspecies and color forms. They are widely distributed, spanning from the southern tip of Florida and Southeast Texas to the Northwest Territories of Canada— though there is a big ‘hole’ in their range in the southwestern U.S.. This qualifies garter snakes the most northern ranging reptile in North America. Only a few reptiles in the Old World reach higher latitudes, such as the European adder (Vipera berus) and the lizard (Zooteca vivipara).


It is astounding that northern populations of garter snakes are capable of surviving subzero temperatures. Thamnophis sirtalis can endure several hours of freezing and anoxia due to the reduction of blood and oxygen transport to tissues. As in many frogs, garter snakes exhibit elevated levels of glucose in the liver & muscle tissues and lactase in the liver as cryprotectants to save critical tissue function. However, generally among freeze-resistant squamates, cryoprotectant concentrations are much lower than in amphibians, making them poorly equipped to deal with long-term exposure to freezing body temperatures.

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Texas Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis annectens), Lion’s Park, Temple, Texas. Photographed after disturbance [4]

During early winter, garter snakes take refuge in underground dens to avoid freezing mortality. As temperatures drop, they move around within dens to locate warmer and deeper microsites. If an optimal location is found, snakes will experience subzero body temperatures only during overnight frosts, successfully avoiding prolonged freezing exposures. Cryoprotectants allow the body to ‘supercool’, which means that body temperatures drop below the freezing point of water without ice crystal formation. In a study of red-sided garter snakes (T. sirtalis parietalis), the supercooling point varied from -5.5°C in late autumn to -0.8°C midwinter. Remarkably, their survival rate is not negatively affected after up to 40% of their body water content becoming crystallized!


A final but interesting note about overwintering in garter snakes is the other side of the coin— the physiological change from a freezing to a thawed state. As ice crystals melt in the body, the reperfusion of tissues with oxygenated blood initiates aerobic metabolism. This sudden transition from ischemia creates oxidative stress which, can result in cell injury. To cope with this problem, antioxidant enzyme production increases prior to thawing, reducing oxidative damage. Even though their physiology is not able to tolerate long-term freezing exposure, garter snakes still prove themselves as very capable poikilotherms (animals that maintain bodily functions over a wide range of internal temperatures).

Below are more photos of Texas wildlife!

Texas River Cooter (Pseudemys texana), also found at Lion’s Park. Photographed after pursuit [3]
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Photographed after pursuit [3]
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Red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans); photographed in situ [1]
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Juvenile great blue heron (Ardea herodias); photographed in situ [1]
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Female cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis); photographed after pursuit [3]
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Queen butterfly (Danaus glippus); photographed after pursuit [3]
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Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos); photographed after slight disturbance [2]
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Feral cat (Felis catus); photographed after slight disturbance [2]
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Texas spiny lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus); photographed in situ [1]
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Green anole (Anolis carolinensis); photographed in situ [1]
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Common checkered skipper (Pyrgys communis) on lantana (Lantana urticoides); photographed in situ [1]
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Honey bee hive (Apis mellifera); photographed in situ [1]
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Beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilarus)
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Green anole (Anolis carolinensis); photographed in situ [1]
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American coot (Fulica americana); photographed in situ [1]
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Loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) with cricket prey; photographed in situ [1]
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Great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus); photographed in situ [1]
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Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos); photographed in situ [1]
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Great egret (Ardea alba); photographed in situ [1]
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Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger); photographed in situ [1]
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Photographed after pursuit [3]

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