Why Massachusetts Named the Garter Snake Its State Reptile

Written by Nixza Gonzalez
Published: January 24, 2023
© Natalia Kuzmina/Shutterstock.com
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Massachusetts is a distinctive state with beautiful scenery. It is the 6th state in the U.S. and has seen European visitors since the early 1600s. The state flower is the mayflower and the state’s nickname is “The Bay State.” While most people don’t think about snakes when talking about Massachusetts, there are 14 native snake species. One of the most common species is the garter snake. This snake is so popular and common, it has been named the state’s official reptile. But why? Keep reading to find out more.

About Garter Snakes

Garter snakes are unique, medium-sized snakes. They are very common throughout the United States and no two look alike. So far, scientists have confirmed and recognized 35 species and subspecies. Garter snakes are generally harmless and rarely attack humans. Their bites aren’t fatal. The first garter snake described by scientists and studied was the eastern garter snake in 1758, but the genus wasn’t described until 1843.

A common garter snake slithering in grass
All garter snakes have keeled scales, which means that each scale has a ridge down the center.

©iStock.com/Wildnerdpix

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Size and Appearance

Although garter snakes vary in size and appearance, most of these snakes are brown with yellow stripes and dark spots. They have keeled scales, a slender build, and a pattern of longitudinal stripes. Some garter snake species don’t have stripes at all. They range in size from 18 inches to 51 inches. To be more specific, the Sierra garter snake is one of the most slender snakes in the genus. Their heads are barely larger than their bodies and they have small eyes. They are also generally dark brown or olive with blotches on the back and upper sides of their body. However, they vary in color.

The western terrestrial garter snake has five subspecies. Most of these snakes have a yellow, light orange, or white dorsal stripe. They are also not as slender and grow between 18 to 41 inches long. Since this species varies so much, experts have a hard time identifying them. The most common garter snake, though, is the common garter snake. It’s native to North America and has a unique pattern of yellow stripes on a black, brown, or green background. Including their tail, they grow between 22 to 54 inches long. They also weigh about 5.3 ounces.

Sierra garter snake
Sierra garter snakes are one of the most slender snakes in the genus.

©Matt Jeppson/Shutterstock.com

Diet

Garter snakes are carnivorous. They mainly hunt during the day and are active in spring and summer. They are fast-moving and blend into their environment very well. Garter snakes mainly consume slugs, lizards, leeches, earthworms, and rodents. However, they also hunt for amphibians like frogs and frog eggs. Garter snakes swallow their food whole. These adaptable reptiles aren’t picky eaters and they travel to find food. Unlike constricting snakes, garter snakes rub, grind, and squeeze their prey on the ground or other hard surfaces. This squeezes their prey so it can fit in the garter snake’s mouth.

Predators

Common garter snakes have many predators. They are hunted by large birds, specifically hawks, crows, owls, and great blue herons. Since garter snakes aren’t poisonous, they can also be eaten by snapping turtles, bull frogs, squirrels, shrews, and raccoons. Garter snakes camouflage when hiding from predators. When they feel threatened, they also release a foul-smelling musk. During the winter, common garter snakes don’t worry about predators since they hibernate.

Eastern Garter Snake on Log
Eastern garter snakes measure 18 to 26 inches long and they have a distinctive yellow or white stripe running down the center of their dark brown, green, or olive-colored backs.

©Erik Agar/Shutterstock.com

18 to 26 inches long with keeled (ridged) scales and variation in their coloration and patterns. Their backs are dark brown, green or olive-colored with a distinct yellow or white stripe running down the center.

Distribution

Where do garter snakes live? Garter snakes have a large range in North and Central America. Interestingly, in North America, many garter snakes living in the west are more aquatic and live near water. Garter snakes live in many habitats including dense forests, fields, grasslands, and lawns. They are often called garden snakes since they are common in gardens, feasting on rodents. Some countries you can find garter snakes include Mexico, the United States, Canada, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Regardless of where they live, garter snakes may choose a variety of different types of locations to build their dens, such as under big rocks or building foundations. They hide in long grass and slither slowly, creeping up on its prey.

Why Did Massachusetts Name the Garter Snake Its State Reptile?

Massachusetts named the garter snake their official state reptile in 2007. They are common in the state with at least three species including the eastern garter snake, the eastern ribbon snake, and the maritime garter snake. Their population in Massachusetts is large and stable. However, they aren’t the only state with multiple garter snake species. For example, about 11 garter snake species live in California, and five live in New Mexico. Hawaii and Alaska are the only states with no known native garter snake species.

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The Featured Image

Head shot of a garter snake flicking its tongue
The garter snake has a red tongue with a black tip.
© Natalia Kuzmina/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

I have been a professional content writer for 6 years now, with a large focus on nature, gardening, food, and animals. I graduated from college with an A.A, but I am still pursuing a Bachelors of Marketing degree. When I am not writing, you can find me in front of my TV with a blanket, snacks, and my fur babies.

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