Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Eastern Garter Snake,
Spangler Park, Wooster OH
The most common kind of garter snakes North America are called "common garter snakes," and that's the kind I'm going to talk about.  If you have seen a snake in your back yard, it was probably a garter snake.  Unless your back yard is in Australia or the Democratic Republic of Congo, in which case, there might be another type of snake that is more common.  You can find garter snakes all the way from Central America to the panhandle of Alaska.  And in Massachusetts, the garter snake is the state reptile.

Bluestripe Garter Snake
©Barry Mansell/naturepl.com
Garter snakes are long, thin snakes with an average length of about 22 inches.  The most ordinary colors are yellow stripes on a brown or green background, but there can be lots of different colors, too, such as blue, gold, red, orange, brown, and black.  Usually, there are three stripes that run all the way along the snake's body, but occasionally, the stripes are hard to see, or there are no stripes at all.

Bluestripe Garter Snake
©James Carmichael Jr/www.photoshot.com

Most garter snakes have a head that is dark on top, with a pair of small spots like dashes.  The eyes are large, and the tongue is red, with a black tip.

Garter snakes are willing to live in all kinds of habitats, and they are the only type of snake found in Alaska.  They are carnivorous and will eat anything they can catch, including slugs, earthworms, leeches, lizards, amphibians, ants, crickets, frog eggs, toads, and rodents.

Red-sided Garter Snakes
©Francois Gohier/www.ardea.com
These snakes mostly like to go out in the daytime.  During the summer, they are more active in the mornings and late afternoons.  Garter snakes who live in warmer areas are active all year, but the ones who live in cold climates do something called brumation during the winter months.  Brumation is a lot like hibernation, except that when reptiles do it, it's called brumation.  Snakes start getting ready to brumate in the late fall.  They stop eating so that their stomachs will be empty during the winter.  Then they go to "sleep" and their body processes slow way down.  The snakes do have to wake up pretty often to drink water, but they might go months without eating anything.  Brumation can last from one to eight months, depending on how long the weather stays cold.

Red-sided Garter Snakes mating mass
©Christophe VĂ©chot/Biosphoto
Male snakes come out of the brumation state first, and they start trying to get themselves warmed up so they can mate.  Like other animals, snakes produce chemicals called pheromones that attract mates to them.  Some male garter snakes can secrete both male and female pheromones.  This confuses other males, who try to mate with the snakes that are giving off these mixed messages.  The advantage of this for the male/female pheromone snakes is that more heat is transferred to them, and they get ready for mating sooner.  Also they tend to attract more females.  This is a good thing, because as soon as the females come out of brumation, the males start competing to mate them, and sometimes there are great big piles of snakes where 25 males might be trying to mate 1 female.

Eastern Garter Snake giving birth
©Joe McDonald/gettyimages.com

After mating, the female goes looking for food and for a place where she can have her babies.  It takes 2 or 3 months for the baby snakes to develop inside their mom, and then they are born live.  A litter might have anywhere from 3 snakes to 80 snakes in it.  The biggest litter of garter snakes on record is 98.

Common Garter Snake with newborn young
©Zig Leszczynski/gettyimages.com
Garter snakes have several ways of defending themselves from predators.  If they are handled or harmed, they can release a fluid with a nasty smell from glands that are located behind the anus.  Also, they can bite.  People used to think that garter snakes didn't produce any venom, but now scientists have figured out that they do.  The venom is pretty mild, and the snakes don't have fangs to deliver it.  But they have enlarged teeth in the back of their mouths.  The venom is deposited into wounds by chewing.

San Francisco Garter Snake
©Michael D Kern/naturepl.com

The most usual predators of garter snakes are hawks, crows, raccoons, crayfish, and other snake species.  Frogs and shrews will eat baby snakes.

Common Garter Snake
©Wild & Natural/Animals Animals
Anyway, if you find any garter snakes in your yard, you should probably just leave them alone.
They are not really going to hurt you, and they may even help you by getting rid of annoying things such as slugs and mice.  I never thought I would say such nice things about a snake, but now I've done it, and that's my final word on the subject!

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