What Do Garter Snakes Look Like? 3 Quick Ways to ID Them

Written by Sofia Fantauzzo
Updated: January 26, 2024
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There are approximately 35 species of garter snakes living in the United States. Amongst these species, there are multiple defining features and ways to tell them apart. However, for the sake of this article, we’ll focus on a few quick ways to identify garter snakes from other types of similar-looking snakes. Garter snakes can be identified most easily by the three light-colored stripes that run down the entire length of their back or sides. These marks resemble a garter, which gives the snake its common name. Continue reading for other quick ways to identify garter snakes!

Stripes and Color

garter snake slithering over rocks

Garter snakes often have a checkered pattern along their stripes.

©iStock.com/randimal

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There is a lot of variation amongst garter snakes. Generally, they are black, brown, gray, or tan in color. Identifying garter snakes by color alone isn’t always helpful, so try to look for the presence of stripes. They will almost always have stripes, though sometimes these markings are absent and other characters will need to be used for identification. For the stripes: one is right down the middle of the back and the other two are along the sides above their bellies. These stripes might appear checkered more than stripey.

The color of the stripes also varies depending on the species. For example, the common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) can have stripes that are yellow, green, blue, brown, or white. This is a lot of variation in one species! Another way you might be able to tell a garter snake from similar-looking snakes is the color of their belly. These snakes have a whitish-green or whitish-blue belly. In ribbon snakes, a lookalike to the garter snake, the belly is usually a yellowish or white color.

Scales

Garter snakes are small and slender with yellow and black stripes along its body. They are found in North America and commonly seen near rivers, lakes, and ponds.

The pupils of garter snakes are round, and their eyes are large.

©iStock.com/rkhalil

You can use the appearance of the scales to help in identifying garter snakes, too. This might involve a closer look than you’re comfortable with, so always exercise caution when you’re around unfamiliar wildlife.

Snakes have dorsal scales and ventral scales. The dorsal scales are around the body, and do not include the scales of the underbelly. On a garter snake, these are somewhat raised on the ridges of the scale. This is called a “keeled” scale. The ventral scales are the larger scales on the underbelly and neck.

Additionally, most garter snakes have dark vertical bars along their upper lip. In North American species, this often indicates a nonvenomous snake.

Range and Behavior

Garden Snake or Garter Snake

The garter snake prefers temperatures between 75-85°F to maintain its body temperature.

©Alexander Gold/Shutterstock.com

Garter snakes live anywhere in the U.S. and Canada except for arid regions of the American Southwest like western Arizona, southeastern California, and southern Nevada. Along with their appearance, their general behavior can be indicative of species.

The garter snake is more active during times when other snakes are inactive. Most snakes are nocturnal or crepuscular, meaning they’re most active at night or dusk and dawn, respectively. In contrast, the garter snake is active during the day. Additionally, they’re active in a wider range of temperatures than many other snakes, meaning they’re out longer in the season before they brumate. Brumation is like hibernation but for cold-blooded animals. They will usually brumate from October to April, but if you live in an area with mild winters, you might catch a garter snake basking during “unseasonable” times. Many other snakes will start brumation in September.

Both their daytime activity and longer time before brumation are part of what makes them commonly encountered serpents in the wild. Its preferred habitats are marshes, woodlands, and grassy environments. Many times, they prefer to be by water.

What Snakes Are Mistaken for Garter Snakes?

Ribbon Snake vs Garter Snake
Both of these snakes are in the same genus as the garter snake but are often slenderer.

The most commonly misidentified snake resembling a garter snake is a ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus). They’re very close relatives to garter snakes so it makes sense they are easily confused for each other. Distinguishing a garter snake from a ribbon snake can come down to those previously mentioned upper lip scales. The ribbon snake does not have defined upper-lip scales with a vertical black line like the garter snake does.

Additionally, a ribbon snake has a bit of white in front of the eyes, whereas a garter snake does not. If all else fails, you can judge them based on their shape. Ribbon snakes are slenderer than garter snakes and tend to have longer tails. In addition, garter snakes have heads that are larger than their necks, while ribbon snakes have slightly more narrow heads.

Are Garter Snakes Venomous?

Garter snakes were previously believed to be nonvenomous. However, recent research shows that they produce a very mild venom in their Duvernoy’s gland. It’s not enough to do any real damage to a human or most pets but effectively subdues their prey. They are shy snakes and will try to escape rather than attack. Garter snakes only tend to bite when provoked or handled. This can, of course, be an unpleasant experience, so it’s best to just leave garter snakes to their business.

Are Garter Snakes Good to Have Around?

Garter snakes are pretty helpful to have in your garden or yard. They prey upon pests like rodents and slugs, which can help keep your home free of vermin and ensure your garden isn’t being attacked by slugs.

Since they’re nonvenomous and don’t pose a threat to pets or people, if you see a garter snake in your yard, it is best to keep it around. If you’re opposed to this idea, you can put strongly scented plants around your house or garden. Plants like lemongrass, marigolds, or herbs like basil can deter snakes. Alternatively, you can use ammonia-soaked rags placed near hotspots to keep them from coming near your home or garden.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Eric Dale/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Sofia is a lover of all things nature, and has completed a B.S. in Botany at the University of Florida (Go Gators!). Professionally, interests include everything plant and animal related, with a penchant for writing and bringing science topics to a wider audience. On the off-occasion she is not writing or playing with her cats or crested gecko, she can be found outside pointing out native and invasive plants while playing Pokemon Go.

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