The ribbon snake belongs to the garter snake family (the genus Thamnophis). Even though they are similar in appearance to their close relative, the true garter snakes, they can be distinguished by their extremely slender body, longer tails, and glossy scales. But just like garter snakes, ribbon snakes are shy, nonvenomous reptiles marked by prominent lateral stripes on the body.
In this article, you’ll discover how big ribbon snakes can get and the largest ribbon snake ever recorded.
About Ribbon Snakes
The ribbon snake (Scientific name: Thamnophis saurita) is a common garter snake native to Eastern North America. It is a nonvenomous snake belonging to the subfamily Natricinae of the family Colubridae. There are four subspecies of ribbon snakes recognized as valid. They are:
- Southern ribbon snake or peninsula ribbon snake – (Thamnophis sauritus sackenii)
- Eastern ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus sauritus)
- Northern ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus septentrionalis)
- Bluestripe ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus nitae)
Ribbon Snakes Description
Ribbon snakes are slender snakes with keeled scales and long, thin tails. The tail of the ribbon snake is quite long – taking up around 1/3 of its total length. The head of this species is only slightly distinct from the neck and has large and prominent eyes. They have three thin, light-colored stripes running along the length of the entire body, with two stripes running along the sides and one thin stripe running down the middle of the back against a dark background.
However, it is important to know that ribbon snakes come in an extremely wide range of color patterns primarily due to specific habitat adaptations. The northern ribbon snake, for example, has a black or dark brown background with yellow stripes down its back or its sides, while the southern ribbon snake has a tan or brown ground color. The bluestripe ribbon snakes are dark-colored with light blue lateral stripes –hence its name. The eastern ribbon snake has one yellow stripe down the middle of the back and one down each side, alternating with its brown body. Some individuals do not have stripes at all.
The belly of ribbon snakes is often lighter in color, either plain yellow-ish, bright white, off-white, or even green. Some may appear to be dark brown or sometimes black. Ribbon snakes bear a close resemblance to their close cousin, the “true” garter snake. To differentiate them, note that ribbon snakes are generally more slender and have unpatterned lip scales. In addition, the lateral stripes of ribbon snakes are found on the 3rd and 4th scale rows, but in garter snakes, they are on the 2nd and 3rd rows. As mentioned above, the ribbon snake’s relatively long tail is also an excellent way to differentiate ribbon snakes from shorter-tailed garter snakes.
Where Do Ribbon Snakes Live?
The eastern ribbon snakes are found throughout the eastern United States but appear absent from most of the Appalachian Mountains. It also ranges from New York to Florida and west to the Mississippi River. The northern ribbon snake ranges from Maine through Ontario and Indiana. The Southern species ranges from South Carolina and extends south through Florida, while the bluestripe or Peninsula ribbon snake is found on the Gulf Coast of north-central Florida.
The best place to find a ribbon snake is in marine and high-vegetation areas, such as marshes, creek beds, lakes, ponds, wet woodlands, streams, and other wet habitats along the edges of water bodies. Since they’re known to prefer cold-blooded hunting animals, they tend to live in wet areas easier for them to swim and catch prey. Some live in forests, elevated rocky areas, pinelands, cypress strands, prairies, and hardwood hammocks. The ribbon snake is most active from April to October and stays in hibernation during winter.
What is the Largest Ribbon Snake Ever Recorded?
An adult ribbon snake is slender and averages about 16 to 35 inches (41 to 89 cm) in total length. Of all four subspecies of ribbon snakes, the western ribbon snake is the largest, measuring about 18 – 42 inches long. The maximum recorded length for a western ribbon snake is 42 inches (107 cm), including the tail which makes up about 30% of the total body length.
What Do Ribbon Snakes Eat?
Just like garter snakes, ribbon snakes do not eat warm-blooded prey. They only eat “cold-blooded” animals such as freshwater fishes, salamanders, newts, frogs, caterpillars, earthworms, spiders, and insects. They are not prey constrictors; instead, they overpower their prey by grabbing the animal in their jaw and swallowing it alive. Meanwhile, they are preyed on by larger amphibians, mammals, reptiles, and birds. Ribbon snakes are typically active during the day. They use sensory systems such as visual and olfactory perception to detect prey.
Are Ribbon Snakes Dangerous?
Ribbon snakes are non-venomous and rarely exhibit aggressive behavior as a defense. They make use of their brown coloration as camouflage with the surrounding vegetation. In addition, they prefer to hide in dense grass, where they coil up their body and go low to the ground. These docile snakes are not dangerous to people or pets and rarely bite –they avoid direct contact with people.
When approached or encountered, ribbon snakes will naturally flee into the water for shelter. They can rely on their speed and agility to avoid being captured. But if pinned or handled, they will not hesitate to release an offensive smelling musk from glands in the base of the tail. They rarely attempt to bite and only do so in defense as a last resort.
Ribbon Snakes as Pets
Because they’re docile and generally friendly, ribbon snakes are popular as pets in the United States. Ribbon snakes are relatively easier to care for than most other snake species. To ensure you acquire a ribbon snake with the best disposition, purchase one from a pet store or reputable breeder. It is not advisable to capture one from the wild. To breed a ribbon snake as a pet, you should keep a terrarium of at least 10 gallons.
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