Garter Snake

2016 July 16

On June 12, 2016, the girls and I were on our way back from releasing the snapping turtle that I’d rescued from beside the road the previous day, when they found this lovely little garter snake:


It was underneath one of the black mats that we’ve left out in the yard as snake hideouts. At over a foot long, it was about twice the size of the red-bellied snakes that we normally find. Here’s a closer picture of its head, so you can see its unblinking eye[1]:


(and I just wanted to include one of my pictures of an Abbott’s Sphinx caterpillar, so that you can see just how much their fake eye looks like a real snake’s eye):

And here it is in the bucket that we had used to carry the snapping turtle back to the swamp:


This was small for a garter snake, there has been one hanging around in our garden that is close to three feet long. These are easily the biggest of the three snake species that we find around our property, and are the second-most-common after the red-bellied snakes.

Garter snakes are in the genus Thamnophis, and ours are Eastern Garter Snakes, Thamnophilis sirtalis. They are pretty much harmless snakes, with tiny little teeth that mostly can’t break the skin[2]. It turns out that their saliva is actually a weak venom, but not to people – it is optimized for their normal diet of frogs, salamanders, and worms. They do have a defense against getting picked up, though. They have a gland near their anus that they use to smear a really foul-smelling secretion on you. So after handling a garter snake, you’ll want to wash your hands really thoroughly.

They also don’t lay eggs. The eggs hatch internally, and they give birth to live snakelets in litters of around 6 to 50, depending on how large and well-fed the mother was.

[1] While snakes don’t have eyelids (they have a protective shell over their eyes that they shed when they molt), don’t make the mistake of thinking that reptiles in general don’t have eyelids. Turtles, crocodilians, and most lizards all have eyelids and can blink. I got into an argument about this point with our teacher back in 5th grade, she thought that reptiles in general had no eyelids.

[2] I remember my brother getting bitten by a good-sized garter snake back when I was around 4 and he was about 6. As I recall, it left tooth marks in his skin, but there was no blood.

5 Responses
  1. Sandy E permalink
    July 16, 2016

    I’d like to add that the foul smell is like rotten fish and it’s as terrible as you could hope for (if you are a snake)

  2. Lon permalink
    July 16, 2016

    I’ve been peed, pooped, *and* musked on all at once by a juvenile delinquent Honduran milk snake, and pooped on by a corn snake (who have a reputation of epic-stink for poop). I’m not sure garter musk worries me. 🙂

  3. July 17, 2016

    What’s your feeling about snakes as pets? Do you think they ever form any kind of attachment to their owners?

  4. July 18, 2016

    KT: I don’t really have the experience with snakes as pets, so your guess is as good as mine as to whether they can form an attachment with their owners. We mainly just catch them, look at them for a while, and then let them go.

    I expect that if they got handled every day they might eventually lose their defensive musk-generating reaction, and they might even start associating the presence of their owners with getting food, but I wouldn’t expect much beyond that.

  5. July 20, 2016

    Yeah, I’m not a fan. My daughter has always wanted one and all I could think was that wearing an “I’m so weird I think snakes are good pets” sign on your back probably wasn’t the best idea in the world. I used to work at pet stores and our snakes all seemed to be pretty dim bulbs. They were interesting for a day or two, but they quickly become a grind as their behaviors are limited to what can fit on their 3 x 5 card of a brain.

    Aside – We had a big grass spider get trapped in one of our sinks. My new Galaxy S7 has a fantastic camera for a phone and I got some good shots that I’ll share on my blog once my current spasm of semi-deranged The World Is Going To Purgatory In A Handbasket posts runs out.

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