garter and ribbon snakes

Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) near Charleston Lake – May 16, 2004.

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for awhile. In fact, I was almost certain I had already written about this, but when I checked, nope! So, as there’s still snow on the ground, and I’m feeling very antsy to be outdoors with the frogs, snakes, insects and other fascinating creatures, today’s post could be considered a preview of what I hope to be seeing in another couple of months.

We see a lot of snakes when we’re out hiking. Back in December, I wrote about an encounter with Black Rat Snakes (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta). They and a couple of other species are not commonly seen. However, we do see many Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis), and a little less frequently, the Northern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus septentrionalis). Both are members of the family Colubridae, and belong to the genus Thamnophis. They’re both relatively small, non-venomous, live-bearing snakes.

Garter Snakes may be encountered just about anywhere in this region, but Ribbon Snakes seem to be mainly found up on the Shield. I used to have quite a difficult time telling one species from the other. People would tell me that the Ribbon Snake was thinner than the Garter Snake and had a skinny tail. I confess that, at the time, this description amused me greatly. Who ever heard of a snake being fat? However, it’s quite true. A Ribbon Snake is noticeably thinner than a Garter Snake. I was also told that the stripes only occurred on certain rows of scales, and this is quite true. However, although I have no problem distinguishing these snakes now, the best advice I can give to someone who wants to identify them is to study their heads. I’ve posted a photo of each just below — click on all images for larger views.

close-up of an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis).

close-up of a Northern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus septentrionalis).

I’m not sure how apparent the difference will be to all of you, but the Garter Snake has a bit wider head, and the dark markings around the head are sort of blurred. There is a bit of yellow behind the eye, and smudgy markings onto the scales on the upper jaw. By contrast, the Ribbon Snake has a little narrower looking head, and has dark scales right up to the back of the eye, with very pale scales on a concave area just in front of the eye. The large scales along the upper jaw are entirely pale — sort of a neat line with no dark smudges. Also, relatively speaking, the eyes of a Ribbon Snake seem large and sort of pop-eyed to me.

As you may have noticed, both of these species have “keeled” scales — scales that have a slight ridge or crease-line from front to back. Some species of snakes have smooth scales, so this is a good diagnostic feature to take note of when studying snakes for identification. We’ve occasionally found Ribbon Snakes close to water, and watched them drop down and swim off. Garter Snakes are also good swimmers. In fact, last summer, while at Kejimkujik Park in Nova Scotia, we watched the Maritime Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis pallidula) in the photo below, drop down some steps and swim off into some very turbulent water in a small creek. It moved with ease, as if entirely oblivious to the waves. By the way, the Maritime Garter Snake is a beautifully marked snake — sort of a checkerboard of brown and beige. As their name suggests, they are a species of the east coast areas. We’ve seen them on a couple of occasions while hiking in Nova Scotia.

Although we encounter snakes from spring through fall, we see the greatest numbers at the beginning and end of the season. During the cooler days of springtime, they are often found basking on rocks, as in the top photo of the Garter Snakes. In autumn, we often encounter them in rocky areas of forest where they are probably moving to their winter hibernacula. In the hottest part of the summer, they are usually hidden from view, curled up beneath decaying logs and the edges of rocks.

Maritime Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis pallidula).

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10 Responses to “garter and ribbon snakes”

  1. WrenaissanceWoman Says:


    Incredible pictures. Thanks for sharing the beauty of these snakes, which we all too often overlook.

  2. Celeste Says:

    Hi! kinda weird thinking about how a snake can swim, huh? Makes me feel REALLY clumsy/stupid I can barely dogpaddle!

  3. Dave Says:

    “obsoleta obsoleta”? What’s the story there, I wonder?

    O.K., off to throw out all my garter snake photos…

  4. burning silo Says:

    WW – Thanks!

    Celeste – Yes, true, it is a little strange to think of how well they swim. Most snakes actually seem to be very competent swimmers.

    Dave – I don’t know the story behind the obsoleta. I may have read it somewhere before, but have forgotten about it (as is the case with so many things!).

  5. pablo Says:

    So was it that you wrote about the Black Rat Snake encounter in December or that you encountered the Black Rat Snake is December? I can’t imagine there are any snakes abroad in the land in December in Canada.

  6. burning silo Says:

    pablo – yes, it was me that wrote about the Black Snake encounter in December, but it happened in May… actually, a couple or so years ago last May. And no, all of the snakes are in their hibernacula in winter up here in the frozen North, although I did hear of a couple of them flooded out in December during our freak warm winter weather.

  7. John Says:

    As always, fantastic photos, great information! On a completely different subject…the other day, just a 1/4 mile from my office in the midst of Dallas, I saw two young coyotes run across the road and into a small spot of land where a local historical park is located. They must have come up from a creek that runs through the area…heavily wooded around the creek…and were heading toward another part of the creek when last I saw them. After reading your posts of the delights of nature in your area, I had a deep sense of satisfaction seeing that wildlife has not been eradicated in Dallas. But I do worry about the coyotes, since the area I’m in is very dense and near several freeways. Anyway, a recent couple of posts about coyotes howling made me think of you and Robin Andrea the moment I saw them.

  8. burning silo Says:

    John – Thanks! And that’s a nice story about the coyotes in Dallas. It’s amazing just how much wildlife can exist in riparian corridors even in urban areas. When I was doing frog pond survey work, one of the ponds I had to do on a couple of occasions, was in a very busy area with paved footpaths all around. However, it was very sheltered by trees and was more like a small marsh. The first time I visited, I pushed my way through the brush and accessed the edge of that pond at 3 or 4 different points. It was absolutely astounding to see how many creatures could be seen — ducks with ducklings, turtles, songbirds, frogs, and plenty of evidence of raccoon and muskrat… all within a couple of dozen feet of a heavily traveled paved footpath!

  9. Cathy Says:

    I just love those fearsome little smiles. I studied your fabulous pictures and I’m still stuck. Birding this Spring, I stared down into a stump that dozens of birders were milling around and caught a few little eyes staring up at me. After I got over the initial eeek!, I managed a couple photos. I’m sending a photo via email (yep – I’ve learned how to compress ’em:0) and would be grateful for your take on who they are.

  10. burning silo Says:

    Cathy – You’re right.. they do look like they’re smiling, don’t they? I’m glad you didn’t shy away from the snakes in the stump. Your photo is quite beautiful. What a neat hiding place for those snakes!