Ribbon Snake vs Garter Snake: What’s the Difference?

Written by August Buck
Published: February 5, 2022
Image Credit Steve Bower/Shutterstock.com
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Think You Know Snakes?

Ribbon snakes and garter snakes are very similar, but there are some key differences that can help you tell them apart. One of the main things to know about this particular species is that ribbon snakes are a type of garter snake, in the same subspecies. For example, common garter snakes are known as Thamnophis sirtalis, while ribbon snakes are known as Thamnophis sauritus. They are different snakes, but it can be tough to tell!

The primary difference between ribbon snakes vs garter snakes has to be their markings, colors, and body shape. While they are closely related, these two snakes are different, including where they prefer to live and what they like to eat. In this article, we will address these key differences and discuss some frequently asked questions regarding these two snake species. Let’s get started.

Comparing Ribbon Snakes vs Garter Snakes

Ribbon Snake vs Garter Snake
Ribbon snakes and garter snakes live in similar habitats and are comparable in size.

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Ribbon SnakeGarter Snake
Venomous?             No                           Sometimes (very few species and very little venom present)
Size    15-30 inches; slender15-30 inches; rounded and thicker body
Color Brown, black, tanBrown, black, yellow, red, blue, green
Habitat    Eastern US; ponds and wetlandsSoutheast US; fields and marshes
Markings  Stripes down back and sidesStriped and spotted
Diet  Fish, frogs, tadpoles, small rodents, insects, snakesFish, worms, small rodents, insects

The 4 Key Differences Between Ribbon Snakes vs Garter Snakes

ribbon snake vs garter snake
The primary difference between ribbon snakes vs garter snakes has to be their markings, colors, and body shape.

iStock.com/randimal

There are key differences that separate both ribbon snakes and garter snakes. For example, ribbon snakes are often less distinctly marked and colored than garter snakes. Ribbon snakes also prefer aquatic habitats almost exclusively, while garter snakes are more flexible in their home habitat. There are differences in a ribbon snake vs garter snake diet and body shape as well.

Let’s take a look at some of the key differences between these two closely related snakes now.

Ribbon Snake vs Garter Snake: Markings

A ribbon snake has fewer distinct markings when compared to a garter snake. While garter snakes can be found in a variety of colors and patterns, ribbon snakes tend to have fewer designs and colors present on their body.

For example, the Eastern ribbon snake has three tan or yellow stripes on its brown or black body; a garter snake can be striped or spotted in a variety of colors. Some garter snakes have more blue or black present in their scales, as well as checkered patterns or stripes. Ribbon snakes will not have as many distinct markings.

ribbon snake vs garter snake
While both of these snakes are relatively slender and long, the ribbon snake is thinner than a garter snake.

K Quinn Ferris/Shutterstock.com

Ribbon Snake vs Garter Snake: Body Shape

Another distinction between ribbon snakes and garter snakes is their body shapes. While both of these snakes are relatively slender and long, the ribbon snake is thinner than a garter snake. This is how the ribbon snake earned its name, after all!

Ribbon snakes also tend to have less bulbous heads when compared to garter snakes. The body to tail ratio for ribbon snakes will also be greater than for garter snakes, though it can be difficult to tell where a snake’s body ends and its tail begins. Ribbon snakes have a much longer tail than garter snakes do.

Ribbon Snake vs Garter Snake: Habitat

Another difference between ribbon snakes and garter snakes has to do with their preferred habitat. Both garter snakes and ribbon snakes can be found near bodies of water and humid climates, but garter snakes are often living in woodland or grassland habitats as well. Ribbon snakes differ from garter snakes in this way, in that they almost exclusively live near and around water.

ribbon snake vs garter snake
Both garter snakes and ribbon snakes can be found near bodies of water and humid climates, but garter snakes are often living in woodland or grassland habitats as well.

iStock.com/Robert Winkler

Ribbon Snake vs Garter Snake: Diet

A final difference when it comes to ribbon snakes vs garter snakes is their diet. Ribbon snakes tend to eat aquatic wildlife, such as frogs, fish, and water bugs, while garter snakes will consume small rodents more often. This is likely due to their preferred habitats, as ribbon snakes spend more time near the water than garter snakes.

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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Is a garter snake the same as a ribbon snake?

No, garter snakes are not the same as ribbon snakes, though ribbon snakes are a type of garter snake. They are closely related species, but they are not the same species.

Is a ribbon snake harmless?

A ribbon snake is generally considered to be harmless, though no snake is entirely without harm. You should always leave wild snakes alone, should you encounter them. However, ribbon snakes do not have venom present in their bodies and they are likely to run away from you should you approach. Ribbon snakes can still bite when cornered or threatened, but their speed is one of their strengths, so escaping will always be what they do first.

Are garter snakes good to have in your yard?

Yes, garter snakes and ribbon snakes can be extremely beneficial in a backyard ecosystem. They are relatively harmless snakes, shy and wary of humans and pets, and they keep other pest populations down. A garter snake will help you by eating any small rodents or unlikable insects while leaving you alone! However, you can always have too much of a good thing- more than a few garter snakes is a sign of a problem, and you should talk to an exterminator if you notice multiple garter snakes in your yard at once.