Garter Snakes in Maryland

Written by Gabrielle Monia
Updated: October 31, 2023
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The geography of Maryland is diverse, with marsh-filled coastal plains, wetlands, and farmlands. There are mountains, ridges, forests, valleys, and streams spanning the state. Garter snakes are common throughout the region. As one of the 27 snakes found in Maryland, this nonvenomous snake is the most common. They’re the snake you’re most likely to see when outdoors in Maryland. Garter snakes rarely grow to be over two feet in length. They’re typically black, dark green, or shades of brown, with a yellow or whitish stripe down the length of their back. You will often see these snakes in backyards, especially wooded rural backyards. Let’s find out more about garter snakes in Maryland. Which garter snake species live there?

Get Familiar with the Garter Snake

Eastern Garter Snake on Log

Garter snakes are the most abundant of the 27 snakes found in Maryland.

©Erik Agar/Shutterstock.com

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Garter snakes can be a welcome garden companion. They help to keep the pests at bay and prefer to stay mostly out of sight. Although their saliva is toxic to their prey, they don’t have venom that’s harmful to humans. Garter snakes, sometimes called grass snakes, are part of the Natricinnae subfamily. Like most in this group, they are ovoviviparous and give birth to live young. Their genus Thamnophis includes about 35 garter snake species. Their species name is derived from the Greek words thamnos, meaning ‘bush or shrub,’ and ophio, which means ‘snake.’

Native to North America, the common garter snake species name is Thamnophis sirtalis. Sirtalis is Latin for “like a garter.” It likely refers to their similarity in appearance to old-fashioned sock garters. The common garter snake is further divided into 13 recognized subspecies, such as the red-spotted garter snake. Let’s find out if you can find the common garter snake in Maryland and what other species might be spotted there.

Garter Snakes in Maryland

Prettyboy Reservoir

Garter snakes are found in the forests, fields, grasslands, wetlands, marshes, and suburban habitats of Maryland.

©iStock.com/AppalachianViews

Garter snakes are most likely to be active in the hot and humid Maryland summers. They go into a period of dormancy in the winters called brumation. You can find them in forested areas, open fields, grasslands, wetland borders, and marshes. While you’re most likely to find them in your backyard in the summertime, they often show up in basements in autumn. Garter snakes usually brumate in crevices under rocks, in trees, or on the banks of streams. As they seek out their site to bed down while the weather’s cold, they’ll sometimes find their way into buildings, and it can be hard for them to find their way back out.

Which Garter Snake Species Live in Maryland?

Although garter snakes are abundant in Maryland, only two species reside there. A subspecies of the ribbon snake called the eastern ribbon snake and a subspecies of the common garter snake known as the eastern garter snake both live in Maryland.

Eastern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus sauritus):

Ribbon Snake vs Garter Snake - Eastern Ribbon Snake

Eastern ribbon snakes live near water bodies as slender and swift-moving swimmers.

©Steve Bower/Shutterstock.com

The ribbon snake is a type of garter snake that gets its name from the three stripes that run the length of its back. The stripes are yellow or white atop a dark green or brown body and are on scales 3 and 4 in this species. They typically have a yellowish, unmarked body.

Eastern ribbon snakes are found statewide, but they’re less common in west Maryland. These semi-aquatic snakes feed on fish, frogs, tadpoles, and salamanders. You can find them in wetlands and near water bodies like lakes, ponds, swamps, and streams. They’re thin, quick-moving, and excellent swimmers. While you might see them basking in the sun on rocks or within shrubs and grasses, they’ll often escape to the water. If captured, they may bite and thrash about while spraying a distinctive musk. In late summer, they typically give birth to about 5 to 16 babies who will be small versions of the adults.

Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis):

Garter Snake in Fall Leaves

The eastern garter snake can thrive in urban and suburban habitats.

©iStock.com/Robert Winkler

Similar in appearance to eastern ribbon snakes, eastern garter snakes are typically dark in color with three lighter stripes down the body on scales 2 and 3. They tend to have slightly more robust bodies than ribbon snakes and, in contrast, often exhibit a checkered body pattern over a grayish or reddish body. Another difference is that they have vertical black lines on their lip scales.

You can find eastern garter snakes near bodies of water, but these snakes also like to spend time in woodlands and grassland habitats as well. They may travel far from water sources and are the most commonly found snakes in suburban areas. According to an article in the Bulletin of the Maryland Herpetological Society, they’re one of the few snakes able to thrive in urban landscapes near dense human populations. When found in these locations, they’ll be in areas with cover nearby of vegetation, logs, debris, or rocks. They eat a similar diet to aquatic animals, but they feed on rodents more often than eastern garter snakes.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © K Quinn Ferris/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Gabrielle is a freelance writer with a focus on animals, nature and travel. A Pacific Northwest native, she now resides in the high desert beneath towering ponderosa pines with her beloved dog by her side. She often writes with a coyote call or owl hoot backdrop and is visited by the local deer, squirrels, robins and crows. A committee of turkey vultures convenes nightly in the trees where she resides. Here, the flock and their ancestors have roosted for over 100 years. Her devotion to the natural world has led her to the lifelong study of plants, fungi, wildlife and the interactions between them all.

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