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Garter Snakes As Pets – The Basics You Need To Know

By Greg Weir

The garter snakes (genus Thamnophis) are perhaps the best-known snakes in North America. Most are characterized by the presence of stripes running the length of their bodies on a dark background. These stripes may be very pronounced and bright, somewhat obscure, or entirely absent, depending on the species, subspecies, or mutation. A single population of the eastern variety of this genus, Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis, may have striped individuals, others in which the stripes are obscure or replaced by a checkerboard pattern, and others which are coal-black and lack all trace of any pattern. Some of the western species, like the checkered garter snake, Thamnophis marcianus, and some western varieties of Thamnophis sirtalis, are very attractive snakes to look at.

Most snakes in this genus show their close relationship to the water snakes in frequenting areas that are equipped with permanent bodies of water such as lakes, rivers and streams. Even the varieties of garters found in desert areas follow the courses of streams and rivers. There are some varieties that are really aquatic, taking to the water when alarmed and swimming with the ease of the true water snakes. They depend on flight to escape enemies but when caught will put up a good show of defense, biting vigorously and often smearing their captor with a discharge from the anal glands. Captive garters tame quickly and permit themselves to be handled without any aggressive behavior whatsoever.

Garters average two to three feet in length. A few, like Butler’s garter snake, Thamnophis butleri, may be fully grown when eighteen inches long; the giant garter snake, Thamnophis couchi gigas, on the other hand, grows to over four feet! Garter snakes breed in the spring and the young are born alive in late summer, the broods occasionally numbering several dozens. Baby garters can be reared without difficulty even in the most basic types of snake enclosure. The eastern garter snakes feed largely upon earthworms and frogs; the western varieties tend to favor small fish. Some larger examples of these snakes will even take rodents or small birds.

The garter snake is a diurnal snake. In summer, it is most active in the morning and late afternoon; in cooler seasons or climates, it restricts its activity to the warm afternoons. In warmer southern areas, the snake is active year-round; otherwise, it sleeps in common dens, sometimes in great numbers. On warm winter afternoons, some snakes have been observed emerging from their hibernacula to bask in the sun.

While most varieties of snakes in this genus are plentiful, Water contamination, urban expansion, and residential and industrial development are all threats to the garter snake. The San Francisco Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia), is now very rare and occurs only near ponds and reservoirs in San Mateo County, California.

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