Common Garter Snake: The Gardener's Friend
While it’s hard not to let out a squeal when you stumble upon one, garter snakes are more afraid of us
than we are of them.
The Common Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis, often referred to as
a garden snakes or as a gardener snakes, can be found in a wide variety
of habitats which may include our own backyards.
The Common Garter Snake tends to prefer wet, grassy environments but are highly adaptable and
can survive the ever-changing weather conditions we experience in Wisconsin. There are many
benefits to sharing our neighborhood with these reptiles.
Many people report significant benefits to having Common Garter Snakes in their yards. They are seemingly a
natural pest control. Common Garter Snakes feed on earthworms, snails, grasshoppers, ants, crickets, and
occasionally, rodents. Many of the insects Common Garter Snakes feed on are the ones feasting in our
Test Your Knowledge. Try the: Garter Snake Quiz
|Common Garter Snake
||Average 4 years, but up to
||8 longitudinal yellow stripes
on dark body
||Males: 1.5 years
Females: 2 years
|Number of Young
||Toads, Frogs, Slugs
Common Garter Snakes are highly variable in color pattern. They typically have eight yellow stripes that
run along the length of their body on a black, brown, gray, or olive background. The stripes may also be
white, blue, greenish, or brown. One stripe runs down the center of the snake's back, the other
stripes run alongside this central stripe.
Sometimes the stripes are absent or poorly defined. Some
garter snakes have alternating rows of dark spots that run along the stripes, making the stripes look
more like checkerboard patterns of light, rather than lines.
Common Garter Snakes have a head that is wider than the neck and is uniformly dark. Their tongues
are red, tipped in black, and their scales are keeled (with a raised ridge along the length of the scale).
The chin, throat and belly resemble the stripes in coloration, ranging from white to yellow, greenish,
blue, or brown.
Common Garter Snakes grow, on average, to be 18 to 27 inches in length. Males are generally smaller than females
and have longer tails. Young Common Garter Snakes are born at 5 to 8 inches in length and are similar
in appearance to the adults.
Common Garter Snakes are very widespread, highly adaptable and can survive extreme environmental
conditions. Common Garter Snakes are found in a wide variety of habitats, including meadows, marshes,
woodlands, and hillsides. They tend to prefer moist, grassy environments.
The common garter snake is most often found around aquatic habitats, such as ponds, freshwater wetlands
and riparian areas. If threatened, they will often flee into the water where they are excellent swimmers. In urban
areas they are found where there is cover such as debris, boards, vegetation, logs, or rocks.
These snakes begin mating in the spring as soon as they emerge from hibernation. The males leave
the den first and wait for the females to exit. Common Garter Snakes are polygynandrous
(promiscuous) which means that both males and females mate with multiple partners. Their breeding
season occurs in spring soon after emergence from hibernation and in the fall. Many males may try
to mate with one female, resulting in a "breeding ball".
After the female has chosen her mate and mated, she returns to her summer habitat to feed and to
find a proper birth place. However, the males stay to re-mate with other available females. The
females have the ability to store the male's sperm until it is needed and thus a female may not mate
if she does not find a proper partner.
Males become sexually mature at 1.5 years and females become sexually mature at two years.
Female Common Garter Snakes nurture their young in their bodies until they are born. The mother
gives birth to live young, called snakelets; she doesn't lay eggs. Newly born snakes
tend to stay around their mother for several hours or days but she provides no parental care or
protection after they are born.
Common Garter Snakes are generally solitary but may gather in groups when they brumate.
Brumation is known as the hibernation for cold-blooded animals. Snakes depend upon their environment to regulate
their body temperature. Cold temperatures cause snakes to hide underground, in rock crevices and
in burrows to stay warm and safe.
Their activity, body temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate
drops in hibernation. During brumation, snakes are mostly asleep but still can wake up to drink
Common Garter Snakes brumate in large groups during the winter in their dens which are usually located
in rock outcropping or even abandoned mammal burrows.
The average lifespan of wild Common Garter Snakes is approximately 4 years but they may live up
to 10 years. Most Garter Snakes probably die in their first year of life.
Common Garter Snake Head
Common Garter Snakes typically eat earthworms, amphibians, leeches, slugs, snails, insects,
crayfish, small fish and other snakes. They seem immune to the toxic skin secretions of toads
and can eat them without harm. Occasionally small mammals, lizards, or baby birds are eaten
as well. Common Garter Snakes find their prey using their excellent sense of smell and their vision.
They use several different hunting methods, such as peering, craning, and ambushing to capture
their prey. The different techniques describe the way the snakes move while they hunt. They
immobilize their prey using their sharp teeth and quick reflexes. The saliva of Eastern Garter
Snakes may be slightly toxic to some of their small prey, making it easier to handle them while
they are being eaten. Like other snakes, they swallow their food whole.
Juvenile Garter Snake
Common Garter Snakes communicate with each other primarily through touch and smell, especially
for breeding. Outside of the breeding season they do not interact much with other snakes.
They use their forked tongues to collect chemicals from the air and insert these forks into a special
organ in the roof of their mouth, which interprets these chemical signals, called pheromones.
Pheromones can be used as a tracking device for garter snakes. Using their acute sense of smell,
Common Garter Snakes can locate other snakes or trails left behind by other snakes through the
pheromones given off by their skin. After they are born, baby snakes follow the same pheromone
trails to feed and locate other Common Garter Snakes.
Snakes are also sensitive to vibrations and have reasonably good vision.
Common Garter Snakes are eaten by a wide variety of predators, which varies throughout their
range. Large fish, bullfrogs, snapping turtles, milk snakes, American crows, hawks, great blue herons,
raccoons, foxes, squirrels, and shrews are some of the animals that prey on Common Garter Snakes.
They rely on stealth and camouflage for protection, and will flee into water to escape predators on
land. Their stripes make them difficult to see properly and capture in grassy areas.
If unable to flee they coil to make themselves appear larger, and may strike and bite. If grabbed, these
snakes writhe and release a foul-smelling secretion; they will also urinate on their attacker
Garter Snakes make ideal pets, especially for beginners. They are generally docile, easy-to-care-for
animals with easy housing and feeding requirements. If possible, it’s always better to purchase
captive-bred specimens because they are easier to tame and handle.
Garter snakes don’t present any significant challenges with regard to housing. In fact, this is one
arena in which these snakes shine.
You can use a plastic storage box, commercially produced reptile tank or aquarium – likely the most
popular choice – to house a garter snake. The habitat needn’t be especially large, either. Small individuals
and species will thrive in a habitat that provides about 1.5 to 2 square feet of space (roughly equal to a
10-gallon aquarium), while larger species and specimens may require about twice as much.
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