The narrow-headed gartersnake is a predominantly aquatic, non-venomous snake found in Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico. This snake is distinguished from other gartersnakes of it’s genus by the lack of stripes along its body and the elongated, triangular head. The narrow-headed gartersnakes’ color ranges from olive to brown with dark spots along its body. They can reach a maximum size of four feet, and females are larger than males. They have a long prehensile tail, and their eyes are situated high up on the head, adaptations for their aquatic lifestyle.
Narrow-headed gartersnakes are found in central Arizona east into western New Mexico. There is a second population in Mexico that ranges from northern Chihuahua into Durango. Their preferred habitat is along rocky creeks and streams at elevations of 4, 000 to 7, 000 ft. where there is abundant vegetation. Oak Creek Canyon in central Arizona is home to one of the largest populations.
Narrow-headed gartersnakes spend most of their time in or around water and eat primarily fusiform (torpedo shaped) fish such as trout and dace, salamanders, and tadpoles. They are excellent swimmers but use their tail to anchor themselves underwater to wait and then ambush prey that comes near. They bask near the water using vegetation for cover and camouflage, and will flee into the water at any sign of danger. The home range of these snakes is relatively small, but they travel quite far in the fall to hibernation sites that are safely above the floodplain.
At the Phoenix Zoo
The Phoenix Zoo Conservation Center currently has a breeding group of five narrow-headed gartersnakes (Thamnophis rufipunctatus). Zoo guests can see these snakes on most days either basking on their logs or hunting fish in their water bowls.
To stop the decline in numbers and perhaps keep this snake off the Endangered Species list, a Gartersnake Working Group was formed with members from Arizona and New Mexico Game and Fish, US Fish and Wildlife service, the Phoenix Zoo, and several other institutions including Arizona State University. This group focuses on preventing habitat loss and recovering this species. Three years ago, they made the decision to bring individuals into a managed setting in hopes of learning more about the care and management of this species with hopes of producing offspring to augment populations in the wild
In 2009, we had the first breeding, but no pregnancy resulted. In 2010, we had a breeding that resulted in a pregnancy but no birth. We are hopeful that in the near future that we will have snakes born here that can be released into the wild when they are large enough to have a good chance of survival.
There is still much that is we do not know about the breeding and behavior of this species. However, we have gathered a great deal of information that was not known previously. We have compiled this information into a NHGS Husbandry Manual so that this information can be shared with others who may want to help with the conservation of this species.
Narrow-headed gartersnake conservation
Recent surveys have suggested that populations of Narrow-headed gartersnakes have declined by at least 50% over the last 20 years. The Narrow-Headed Gartersnake is not listed under the Endangered Species Act, but because it is declining it has been listed as a species of special concern by Arizona, New Mexico, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. One of the main reasons for this decline is the presence of invasive species. Bullfrogs and crayfish consume young snakes. Sport fish like sunfish and catfish have bony spines that can cause injury when snakes try to swallow them. Habitat has also been lost due to the damming and diversion of waterways.