Garter Snakes Are Friendly

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Nature Magazine, August-September 1944

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From the roadside a large female garter snake, frequently called a "striped snake," moved quickly away, while near where she had been a half-hundred diminutive garters scurried off in various directions. These were her recently born young, for the garter snake is a viviparous serpent-one producing its young alive-in contrast to such a one as the blacksnake, known as oviparous-one that lays eggs and leaves them to hatch.

The garter snake and the common water snake usually have the largest families of any American serpents, and there are records of seventy or more garters being born to this most common of American snakes. It is the earliest of all serpents to appear in spring, sometimes being seen beside snowbanks in early March; and is latest in the year to go into hibernation, lingering to the very approach of winter and reluctant to go into death-like inactivity. They will frequently be discovered coiled in a ball of serpents for warmth waiting until spring calls them from their winter sleep.


For hardiness, as well as large families, the garter snake is noted throughout its range. It is an inhabitant of the greater part of the United States, and ranges up into Canada nearly to the 65th degree of latitude. Just how many types of the garter snake exist no naturalist has yet definitely established, but more than fifty have been noted in various parts of the vast homeland of this little creature. There is the most familiar phase known to most people who notice serpent life. That is the common, dark-brownish to black type, with three yellowish stripes extending the length of the body, while underneath it is of a greenish-yellow tone. On the sides, when the skin is extended, the snake exhibits a series of whitish to pale - greenish spots, their pattern frequently suggesting a checkerboard. This type of the garter suggested the name striped snake, but it is by no means always striped. Certain types are clouded, with obscure markings and no bands; others have a body pattern like the broken links of a chain; still others a checkerboard-like arrangement of markings all down the length of the top of the body. This is called a "tessellated pattern." The latter individuals usually have stripes along the sides.

Albino specimens are occasionally reported. Another interesting type is that found in Ontario near the shores of Lake Erie, and at certain places in Ohio along the same lake shore. It is a true melanistic type; that is, tending to black. It is in appearance like a diminutive blacksnake, but it is a deep, rich black, with a white throat, and would not be regarded by the average person as one of the true garter snakes. Indeed, numerous students of serpent life seem almost unaware of the existence of this ebony phase.

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