Garter snakes are a very common snake throughout the United States and Canada. There are several species and depending on where you live you may have one or more species in your yard and local parks. This is a snake that you should know a little bit about because you are bound to see them regularly!
Garter snakes (or sometimes written gartersnake) are often called garden snakes. They belong to the genus Thamnophis and the family Colubridae and subfamily Natricinae. They are closely related to ribbon snakes (also in the genus Thamnophis) and water snakes (genus Nerodia).
Garter snakes are relatively small snakes. In general they grow to between one and two feet in length with females being large than males, both in length and girth. They are typically black with stripes running the length of their bodies. Some may be marked with other colors, especially red and white.
Members of the genus Thamnophis range from Canada to Central America and from coast to coast in the United States. In fact, the common garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis, is the only snake that is native to Alaska! They prefer grassy areas, often near streams or marshy waterways. Some snakes will travel great distances to hibernation sites, where large number of snakes, especially in the northern portions of their range, will hibernate through the winter together. Garter snakes can be found in your yard, especially under cover objects, natural and unnatural, like logs, shingles, or tin.
Garter snakes are generalist feeders. Depending on the species and availability of prey (at a location or by season), the snakes will eat worms, slugs, leeches, fish, frogs, and small rodents like mice and voles. Garter snakes also may feed on invertebrates like insects, and on tadpoles and toads (toads release a toxin, so some species or populations have adapted the ability to resist the toxin).
Garter snakes utilize pheromones to attract mates. Females often will be surrounded by several males, forming a mating ball. One male will finally succeed in breeding with her in the spring of each year. The female will give live birth to small snakes in the late summer.
Garter snakes, when startled or picked up, with thrash their body and may attempt to bite. They also will release a musk from their cloaca that is strongly scented and usually mixed with urates and perhaps fecal matter.
Garter snakes are considered harmless snakes, meaning they are non-venomous. However, recently researchers have found venom glands in garter snakes. They have a very mild neurotoxic venom. Remember that snakes use venom to help subdue their prey and only use it in defense when necessary. The venom in garter snakes is very mild and not dangerous to humans, even if you are bitten.
In general, garter snakes are common. In some areas they are the most commonly seen snakes. They are often collected by children and kept as pets. They are relatively easy to care for and often released at the end of the summer.
Some populations of garter snakes are faced with conservation challenges. Pollution, usually from pesticide or fertilizer run-off, has destroyed many waterways utilized by garter snakes. The introduction of critters like bullfrogs (in the western United States) and bass into fishless ponds has led to the snakes being out competed or led to increased predation on garter snakes.
The San Francisco garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataeni), a subspecies of the common garter snake, has been listed as endangered since 1969. The narrow head garter snake (T. rufipunctatus) has declined because of predation on the snake by an introduced crayfish.
San Francisco garter snake
Effects on humans
As discussed above, garter snakes will utilize their teeth in defense. If they succeed in biting you, it will feel much like the bite from a small puppy or kitten with very fine teeth. The wound should be cleaned, but rarely will it get infected if it is kept clean. Also, garter snakes have a mild neurotoxic venom, which they use to kill their prey before consumption. This venom is not known to affect humans.
Overall, garter snakes are harmless snakes that can be left alone to go about their daily activities in your yard. They will feed on critters like worms and slugs, frogs, and small mice. They will typically turn and go in the other direction if you happen upon one. If you would perfer to not see them in your yard, pick up any debris or logs and place them at the edge of your property. This will encourage the snakes to stay in that area or leave your yard to seek other shelter.
Garter snakes are the most wide-ranging reptile in North America. They are a common sighting during the summer months and popular pets for young children and snake enthusiasts. They are harmless and perform a service of keeping many prey items in check. The next time you see a garter snake take the time to watch it and learn. Once you spend a couple of minutes appreciating its biology, you will find that you have less fear towards it and other snakes.
They are harmless to people, but people still fear them. Garter snakes play an important role in your garden’s ecosystem – they eat earthworms, frogs, and mice, among other things.
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