North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

Eastern Garter Snake

Scientific Name:  Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis
Classification:  Nongame
Abundance:  Common throughout the state

 

     
Photo: Jodie Owen

     

The eastern garter snake is a medium-sized snake, averaging 3 to 4 feet long as an adult. It is highly variable in color and can be brown, reddish, black, gray or olive.  Often erroneously called a “garden snake,” the garter snake can be identified by three light stripes that run the entire length of its body on the back and sides. These stripes resemble “garters,” which are bands worn around the leg to keep up a stocking or sock. Stripes can be yellow or white. Sometimes the stripes on the sides are absent or more resemble a checkered pattern. Its belly is white or light yellow. They are sometimes confused with ribbon snakes; however, ribbon snakes are generally more slender, have more distinct stripes down the body, and lack dark bars on their lip scales.   

Garter snakes are common throughout North Carolina and are found in a variety of habitats, such as woods, meadows, marshes and even backyards as long as there is some cover such as vegetation, logs or rocks. 

Common prey includes worms, frogs and toads, salamanders, and fish, and rarely birds and small mammals.

Garter snakes mate in the spring and summer and give birth to between 7 and 80 live young, which look like miniature versions of the adults.

The eastern garter snake is classified as a nongame species and has no open season. It is unlawful for any person to take, or have in possession, any nongame mammal or bird unless that person has a collection license or is collecting fewer than 5 reptiles or fewer than 25 amphibians that are not endangered, threatened, or special concerned species.

The eastern garter snake is non-venomous.  Most specimens will bite if handled roughly or otherwise restrained, but a bite from even a large specimen is no more severe than a briar scratch. Garter snakes will often release a foul-smelling, but harmless, musk if handled.

Many people fear snakes and worry for the safety of people and pets when snakes are present. In reality, snakes are shy creatures that pose little to no threat to us when left alone. Snakes are an important part of our environment, keeping populations of pests such as rodents, slugs, and insects in check. Plus, snakes are a food resource to other animals such as foxes, raccoons, bears, eagles, hawks, and owls. 

When someone encounters a snake, usually the person and the snake are both caught off guard. The best plan is to leave the snake alone and give it plenty of space. In most cases, given time, the snake will move out of the area on its own. Like all reptiles, snakes are cold-blooded, meaning that their internal temperatures follow that of the ambient temperatures where they are found. On a cool day, a  snake encountered basking may not yet have the energy to move away from you, so it may require more time and warmer temperatures before it can retreat. 

The Wildlife Commission does NOT send people out to trap and remove snakes. The best plan for citizens of North Carolina is to learn about snakes and alter habits to minimize negative interactions, and in the process, learn to coexist with snakes.

Snakes can be difficult to monitor and survey, as most of them possess great camouflaged patterns and remain hidden within certain habitats.  One way biologists monitor corn snakes is through the use of artificial cover materials such as plywood boards, roofing tin, concrete blocks, and other materials. Plywood tends to be better at attracting smaller snake species, while larger snakes are more often found under tin.  Snakes will seek out these artificial shelters for thermoregulation and as a result, this method is particularly successful during spring and fall.