Photo of the Week – May 9, 2013

A red-sided garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis).  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska

A red-sided garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.  Click on this or other photos for a larger, sharper image.

I ran across this beautiful garter snake in our Platte River Prairies yesterday.  Interestingly, it was almost exactly a year ago that I photographed a mating ball of red-sided garter snakes just a 1/2 mile from where I found this one.  This one may have been looking for love too, but I interrupted it just long enough to get a few photos.

I know snakes evoke strong emotions from many people – and not necessarily in a positive way.  It’s too bad, because if you can stand to look at them up close, they are really beautiful creatures.  I love to study the patterns of scales, especially on the head.  The scales look as if they might have been put together by a master stone mason.








About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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14 Responses to Photo of the Week – May 9, 2013

  1. Katy Simmons says:

    These are amazing photos, Chris!

  2. savannagal says:

    What a great photo! Amazing shot.

  3. georgia gillespie says:

    i am not a snake expert – and i am going to look up “red sided” momentarily, but if anyone wants to post about them, i would love to read any info or personal experience. snakes, actually are quite beautiful, but i have only seen a regular garter snake. yes, these photos are excellent; you really are talented at photography. thanks!

  4. John I. Blair says:


    Where I live the only snakes I ever meet
    Are little ones that hide in leaves to flee the heat
    And search between grass stems for bugs to eat.

    They scale below the scary size for snakes,
    So when I see one glide my first reaction
    Is to pick it up for close inspection.

    How beautiful the shiny skin and tiny eyes,
    The pointed nose for poking into soil and probing plants,
    The forked tongue questioning the air for scents.

    It curls up in my warm palm, poised and calm,
    Muscular and smooth, a pleasure there to see,
    Evidently unafraid of something big as me.

    And yet, if it were five times larger I’d be cautious;
    Ten times and I would give it yards of space.
    Clearly, when I’m judging snakes, size has its place.

    ©2002 John I. Blair

  5. John I. Blair says:

    This poem was about grass snakes, but the basic reaction applies to all snakes. Garters fall somewhere along the center of the scare-scale.

  6. Pat Halderman says:

    Beautiful photos of my favorites snakes! I do love reptiles.

  7. John says:

    Do garter snakes have teeth? It doesn’t look like they have fangs. And how big of animals do they eat?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      John – No, they don’t really have teeth. They eat a lot of invertebrates – earthworms are a favorite, I think. I think they can eat small frogs and other small vertebrates too.

      • James C. Trager says:

        All snakes have teeth, Chris. Colubrid snakes, of which the garter snake is one sort, have four rows above and two below, as in this picture of a rat snake The general snake tooth form is small, backwardly curved needles or prickles, with some modifications of form in a few of the teeth in such critters such as rattlers that inject venom. The recurved teeth are essential to the swallowing mechanism of snakes, since they do not chew, have no limbs, and are unable to gulp, but must “crawl” the jaws onto and over the whole prey item.

        • Chris Helzer says:

          Thanks James! Great info – glad my son asked the question, and that you were paying attention. Having been bitten by garter snakes before, I hadn’t felt anything that would have made me think “teeth”. Clearly they have them… The photo is really helpful.

        • Not all snakes have teeth (the species genus Dasypeltis in Africa are toothless) but the vast majority, including garter snakes do.

          Great photo, garters are awesome but way too under appreciated

  8. Dennis Adams says:

    Great photo Chris. Remind me to tell you my snake story sometime that almost prevented my marriage.

    [Description: AdamsSig]
    The Nebraska Forest Service: Enriching lives by protecting, restoring, and utilizing Nebraska’s tree and forest resources.

  9. I can not understand the fear many people feel toward snakes. I think they are just gorgeous!

  10. Kevin Sullivan says:

    As always Chris, stunning and engaging photography.

    Loved your statement about the head scales on the red-sided garter snake, and the intricate and perfect arrangement as if put together by a master stone mason. Couldn’t resist commenting that The Lord is The Master Creator – and the design is AMAZING.

    Love the blog. You do such an excellent job!!


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