Natural history of common gartersnakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) in east-central British Columbia




McAllister, Jillian

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Widely distributed species typically exhibit variation in various aspects of their ecology throughout their range. Such variation offers opportunities for fundamental studies in evolution, including local adaptation, biogeographic rules, distributional limits, and speciation. Geographic variation also limits our ability to extrapolate from one population to another, making site-specific knowledge of ecology essential for wildlife management and conservation. I studied the natural history of Common Gartersnakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) at two sites in east-central British Columbia, where active seasons are short and cool. I used opportunistic sampling of snakes to study general features of their ecology and radiotelemetry to study movements and habitat selection, including hibernating sites. In September, snakes move from summer habitats to hibernating sites and then emerge from hibernation in April or May. Adult female T. sirtalis overwintered with 0 to 16 other adults in inconspicuous underground hollows, typically in forested habitats, near water and/or coarse woody debris; this is distinct from the large-scale communal hibernation seen in other northern populations. Hibernacula were typically distant from summer habitat (mean = 1485 ± 937 m SD, n = 8, range = 148-2657 m). Under the assumption that snakes exhibit site fidelity to hibernacula in consecutive years, I estimated the cumulative distance moved over the entire active season to be 7011 ± 3756 m SD (n = 9, range = 3510-15015 m). Gravid female snakes moved at significantly lower rates, followed more tortuous paths, and inhabited areas that were more open-canopied than their nongravid counterparts (n = 13). Nongravid snakes used locations with a higher percentage of ground cover than gravid snakes. Mating occurred in early spring near the hibernacula and parturition in early to mid August in summer habitat; litter size ranged from 3 to 25 and was not significantly correlated with the size of the female. Adult snakes preyed exclusively on adult Western Toads (Anaxyrus boreas) and juvenile snakes fed on leeches and metamorphosing toads. Through the identification of migratory routes, relevant summer and winter habitat characteristics, and hibernation sites, my study contributes to the protection and conservation of northern reptiles, which are particularly vulnerable to population declines compared to southern populations due to the restrictive cold climate.



Natural History, Herpetology, Ecology, Hibernation, Migration