Basking along the edge of some random driveway in north Georgia, a Common Gartersnake was the first reptile I saw after moving away from Vermont for the first time. Gartersnakes, being the most abundant reptile in the state of Vermont, weren’t a species I was excited to see. Having been in Georgia for a grand total of 10 minutes and finding a garter right away I figured I was in for in for a season full of them, so I didn’t pay this particular one much mind. Had I known then that I would not see another garter in Georgia for the next two years, or for my entire three years in Texas, I might have stopped to take a picture and appreciate the animal.
And there is a lot to appreciate. Reaching about two feet in length, the species is HIGHLY variable in its color and pattern. Usually they have a yellow stripe down their back, black or gray sides, and a yellow stripe running along both edges of their belly, which is cream-colored. Their sides also have a bit of a checkerboard pattern, with light squarish patches on the skin between their scales. The top of their heads are a dark olive-green color, and their faces are yellow except for the dark edge of each labial (lip) scale. Their dorsal scales are keeled, which means each scale has a ridge running down the middle, making the snake rough in appearance, and not shiny like a kingsnake. That’s what they normally look like, but sometimes Gartersnakes can turn up with brilliant reds, blues, and orange colors, or they will be tinted one color or another. In some places almost all of the garters are melanistic (solid black from head to tail), and if you head out west, the colors become brilliantly dazzling.
The diet of gartersnakes is as varied as their color and patterns and they rarely depend on one particular food item. They eat frogs, salamanders, the occasional fish, earthworms and other invertebrates. Truthfully, many of the things gartersnakes eat happen to be garden pests, so they are nice to have around the yard. Unlike king and cornsnakes, garters do not constrict their prey, instead swallowing their food live. They also lack potent venom, which means they can’t eat things like adult mice, which put up too much of a fight. The teeth of garters aren’t meant for chopping or cutting, but are simply backward pointing needles meant to hold food in place and help guide it down the snake’s throat. Like other snakes, garters can dislocate their jaw and mandibles to swallow food larger than their heads. While their teeth prevent prey from escaping, the snake guides its head and jaw around its prey, reaching each mandible forward and pulling it back to gradually “reel in” the food until it is fully swallowed.
There really isn’t anything to be worried about in regards to bites from garters. Those tiny teeth, too small to inflict harm to a mouse, have even less effect on people. The worst of the bites may break skin slightly, but no worse than brushing up against a raspberry bush. Most bites can be more properly described as a “gumming”, and only occur after a human picks the snake up. That’s true of any snake, really, but is worth saying about garters too. The business end, which you will want to avoid, is their cloaca (posterior opening, aka “their butt”).
All snakes produce a foul-smelling musk that garters will use as their first line of defense when snagged by a predator or curious child. While I’m used to the odor at this point, I am acutely aware that my friends and family do not appreciate having me around when I have garter musk on me. The musk of each species is unique, and if I had to describe the musk of a garter I’d tell you it smells like old pennies mixed with rancid milk with a hint of burnt almond. Yum.
Many people are surprised to learn that not all snakes lay eggs. Actually, only about half of them do, and the rest, including garters, give birth to live young. This gives gartersnakes an advantage over egg-laying species in colder environments. As a live-bearing species, pregnant females can keep their developing young warmer by moving from hot spot to hot spot and basking, whereas eggs need to remain in one place and may not stay warm enough to hatch before winter.
Before my stay in Georgia, I knew gartersnakes ranged all the way to Florida, but didn’t understand they are MUCH more abundant in the north. It seems the farther north you go, the larger proportion of the entire snake population garters make up. Head up to northern Alberta, Canada, and they are the only snake left. Only reptile, actually.
In Vermont, there isn’t a single spot where you wouldn’t expect to find a gartersnake at least every once in a while, from the top of our highest peak to the islands of our lowest lake, and in every habitat in between. Indeed, garters are the only reptile people in our most urban environments are accustomed to seeing, and you can find them in habitats ranging from marshes, meadows, gravel pits, deep woods, and agricultural fields. Gartersnakes are what we call a “habitat generalist”, which really just means they are not too picky about the habitat they live in.
Gartersnakes are better-suited to life in cooler environments (and so am I) than most other reptiles, and after a prolonged period of time without seeing a single one, I returned to the north excited to see the remarkable serpents I once took for granted. Despite fears and misconceptions many people have about these animals, they are really quite docile and great to have around the yard. Gartersnakes are a big piece of the biodiversity puzzle in the north, and as the first reptile most people see up here, have helped introduce countless curious souls to the wonderful world of herpetology. While I have stopped catching every gartersnake I see (half out of respect for the snake, and half out of respect for people less accustomed to the smell of musk), I greatly appreciate having them around and enjoy every encounter I have with this common, yet complicated species.