Discover Why Virginia Named the Eastern Garter Snake Its State Reptile

Written by Volia Schubiger
Published: February 9, 2023
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Virginia is located in the southeastern part of the United States. It is also one of the original 13 colonies! This state is gorgeous and it is surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Chesapeake Bay. The state’s tourism slogan is “Virginia is for Lovers” and it makes perfect sense when you happen to visit. If you happen to be an outdoor lover, then you’ll love the gorgeous beaches and mountainous landscapes that this state has to offer. There are also tons of wonderful animals that live in this gorgeous state, especially reptiles. For example, did you know that Virginia houses nine native lizard species?! Also, did you know that the eastern garter snake is the state reptile of Virginia?

You may even be surprised to find out that there are about 28 states that have all picked out a reptile to symbolize their state. Are you interested in finding out why Virginia happened to choose the eastern garter snake as its state reptile? Then check out the following!

Let’s learn about the eastern garter snake and why it was chosen as the state’s symbol!

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What Is a State Reptile?

There are several states in the U.S. that have picked out specific reptiles to represent them.


So, what exactly is a state reptile? A state reptile is an animal that is officially adopted by an American state. The reptiles that these states choose from include snakes, alligators, lizards, tortoises, and even turtles! While it is usually possible that these reptile species are found throughout the state, that’s not always the case. However, not every state chooses to have a reptile state symbol as there are only 28 states that do. Still, many states choose to adopt different types of symbols such as mottos, flowers, insects, and nicknames.

A good example of this is the fact that all 50 states have a state bird or a state tree that symbolizes the state. Interestingly enough, a state can only adopt a reptile after it has been proposed in a bill and then approved by the legislature in the state.

Each state has the authority to decide which reptile they would like to represent them. Today there are a total of nine states that have decided to use a turtle as their official state reptile. These states include South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Colorado, and New York. There are also five different states that have adopted snakes as their state reptile. These five states are Arizona, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, and Massachusetts. As we mentioned above, the eastern garter snake was nominated and approved as Virginia’s state reptile. So what do we know about these fascinating snakes? Let’s find out all about it!

Eastern Garter Snake Facts

The eastern garter snake is a common terrestrial snake that can be found in Virginia and throughout the eastern United States. Since they are so commonly found across the country, many Americans are quite familiar with these snakes. The easiest way to identify these snakes is by the dark color of their skin and their striped pattern. Even if you don’t like snakes, seeing them around in your yard or neighborhood is a very good thing. This is because they are great for the ecosystem. Let’s find out more interesting facts about the eastern garter snake such as their overall size, diet, and habitat.

Size and Appearance

Eastern Garter Snake on Log

The eastern garter snake is recognized by the three stripes on its back.

©Erik Agar/

Eastern garter snakes get their name from the three stripes on their back. Funnily enough, these stripes have often been compared to the garters that men used to wear to hold up their socks in the past. It was said that the stripes on the snakes resembled these garters. In terms of coloration, the most common color you’ll find these snakes in is yellow. However, they can also be white, green, brown, and even blue-striped.

Thamnophis sirtalis is the scientific name for the common garter snake. Thamnophis is a Greek word. The Greek word thamnos means bush, while the Greek word ophio means snake. Sirtalis is a Latin term that refers to the stripes on their backs. There are a variety of garter snake species, but all have the same scientific name: Thamnophis. In terms of size, these snakes can grow anywhere from 18 to 26 inches in length as adults.


Although snakes can all have unique diets depending on their species, it is known that all snakes are carnivores. Eastern garter snakes are known to eat a variety of different things. Their diet includes staples such as slugs, snails, crayfish, amphibians, insects, small fish, and even other snakes. They are also known to eat birds, small mammals, and sometimes other lizards. In order to hunt for their prey, they depend on their great sense of smell and their superb vision. To keep their prey from moving once they’ve locked eyes on them, they will quickly bite into them. Their saliva is capable of immobilizing their pretty which allows them to them swallow them whole.


As we mentioned previously, eastern garter snakes are pretty well-known as you can find them all throughout the eastern United States. This is another reason why you can so easily find this snake throughout Virginia. Eastern garter snakes are the most common snakes that people will come across in Virginia. Since there are so many humans around their environment now, they have become adapted to many different human environments.

Virginia residents and visitors can find these snakes in various areas such as farms, cemeteries, parks, and even on their own front lawns. However, their favorite place to live and hang out happens to be near freshwater sources. This is why you’ll often find this snake in ponds, streams, lakes, and even in ditches. However, these snakes particularly enjoy living between stone walls and even in the many forests and fields throughout the state. You can also find them underneath logs, stones, and other outdoor debris because they can then relax in the sun and get warm.

Why Is the Eastern Garter Snake the State Reptile of Virginia?

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Thanks to a middle school student, Aiden Coleman, the eastern garter snake was selected as the Virginia state reptile.

©K Quinn Ferris/

The eastern garter snake was officially selected as the Virginia state reptile during the 2016 Virginia Senate session. However, you might be wondering why exactly this snake was picked. It seems that it was all thanks to the hard efforts of a middle school student in Virginia. A middle school student who attended Berkely Middle School in Richmond, felt quite strongly that the eastern garter snake represented the state quite well.

The 11-year-old, Aiden Coleman, felt that the eastern garter snake would make the perfect symbol thanks to its long history in the state and overall prevalence. To make the decision happen, Aident worked together with his state representative, Del. Brenda Pogge, R-James City County. Together, they promoted HB335 and advocated for it to be passed. At first, the senate argued in favor of timber rattlesnakes being made the state symbol. However, a decent number of senators made it clear that they did not back this option. Eventually, the senate finally voted in favor of nominating and promoting the eastern garter snake as the official state reptile. Through his hard advocacy work, Coleman was successful in his attempt to get the eastern garter snake selected!

What Is the Conservation Status of the Eastern Garter Snake?

In the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, common garter snakes are listed as “least concern.” Due to their wide range and large population, they are estimated to number well over one million adults. However, due to habitat loss and over-collection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers the San Francisco garter snake to be an endangered species.

Common Reptiles in Virginia

Would you like to know what reptiles you can find in Virginia? In Virginia, you can find many different types of reptiles. 

Some of the most common reptiles you’ll find in Virginia include: 

  • Eastern copperhead — This is one of Virginia’s only venomous reptiles. Bites are rarely fatal, however. As an ambush hunter, this species picks a suitable spot and waits until its prey is surprised. The most common times to find this snake is when the weather has cooled down in the spring and in the fall.
  • Timble rattlesnake — This species is also known as the Canebrake Rattlesnake. Generally, their color ranges from yellowish-brown to gray to almost black. You can identify them by looking for crossbands on their backs that are dark brown or black. These snakes are considered one of the most dangerous in Virginia. This is because they are quite large, have long fangs, and are able to produce a large amount of venom. However, these snakes usually don’t bite unless provoked. In addition, you can usually tell when one is nearby because they have a well-known rattle sound they produce.
  • Northern watersnake — There is a large population of northern watersnakes that live in Virginia. They are found in a variety of colors which range from light gray to dark brown. They also have reddish-brown to black bands on their body. Even though this snake is non-venomous that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. It can still bite quite painfully. Their saliva has a mild anticoagulant. This causes bites from these snakes to bleed more and appear worse than they are.
  • Six-lined racerunner — This is the most common reptile found in Virginia. They are insectivores, and their primary food source is termites. They also happen to eat lots of beetles, ants, and spiders.

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © Winkler

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About the Author

Volia Schubiger is a freelance copywriter and content editor with a passion and expertise in content creation, branding, and marketing. She has a background in Broadcast Journalism & Political Science from CUNY Brooklyn College. When she's not writing she loves traveling, perusing used book stores, and hanging out with her other half.

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