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Our Most Common Snake Is Nothing To Fear

The common garter snake is perfectly named. It is the most common garter snake in North America. That is because it is very adaptable. It can live in many different habitats: woodlands, prairies, fields, neighborhoods and even mountains.

A common garter snake. (Photo via Shutterstock)

These snakes can vary in color. Most often we see three yellow stripes running along the length of their bodies with a black background. The background can also be gray or olive green. Their tongues are red or red with a black tip. Read on to learn five more fun facts about the common garter snake.

Bring on the cold

One trait that makes garter snakes super-adaptable is their ability to tolerate the cold. Like all snakes, they are cold-blooded and cannot make their own body heat. Instead, they are dependent on the temperature outside.


Words to know

Bask: To lie exposed to warmth and sun, typically from the sun.

Carnivorous: Feeding on other animals.

Hibernacula: A place in which an animal seeks refuge.

Neonate: A newborn child or animal.

Neurotoxin: A poison that effects the nervous system.

Venomous: Capable of injecting venom through a sting or bite.


But because they can handle cold better than others, they are the last to head to their hibernacula (a shelter to spend the winter) in the fall and they will be the very first snake to emerge this spring. On a sunny winter day, they may even come outside to bask in the sun.

Lots of kin

The common garter snake has many relatives. They belong to the genus Thamnophis, which translates to “shrub serpent.” In the United States, 15 other snake species belong to the same genus. In Illinois there are 4 species total: the common garter snake, the plains garter snake, the western ribbon snake and the eastern ribbon snake. There are also two subspecies of the common garter snake: the Chicago garter snake and the eastern common garter snake.

Unbounded appetite

A common garter snake. (Photo via Shutterstock)

These carnivorous reptiles are not picky. They will eat just about anything they can catch and swallow. With the ability to unhinge their jaws, the list of potential prey includes animals larger than their heads. They eat worms, insects, amphibians, fish, bird eggs and small mammals. In turn, they are eaten by many animals, including birds of prey, predatory mammals, fish, frogs, turtles and other snakes.

Their stink is worse than their bite

The common garter snake’s best defense is the musky odor it emits when threatened. It is truly foul smelling. However, these snakes are also considered mildly venomous. They have a neurotoxin in their saliva that can help immobilize the meal they are trying to eat. This toxin does not really harm humans. If bit, the toxin will only cause mild swelling and itching.

Newborn neonates

Adult snakes will mate as soon as they emerge in the spring. The female does not give birth until late summer or early fall. Most snakes lay eggs, but common garter snakes do not. The female gives birth to 15 to 80 live babies, depending on her size.

Garter snakes coiled together during mating. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Babies are about 5 inches to 9 inches long at birth and are called neonates. They are on their own right from birth. If they are lucky, they most often grow to about 2½ feet long and live up to about two years. Some who are super lucky may reach the ripe old age of 4.

So this month, no matter where you are hiking, be on the lookout for our first snake to come out and bask in the early spring sun!


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