25 Types Of Garter Snakes + ID Guide & Pictures

Types Of Garter Snakes

The garter snake is a common sight across many yards in the United States, Canada and parts of Mexico. There are over 30 different types of garter snakes that come in dozens of colors, patterns and sizes. Different species can vary in length from 18 inches long to nearly 5 feet!

Many people do not know about the diversity of these snakes, even those in their own backyards! Want to learn how to identify your local garter snakes? Continue reading to learn what species live near you, how to identify them and if they are dangerous.

All About Garter Snakes

Garter snakes are secretive, but charming reptiles that spend their time hunting amphibians and invertebrates near sources of water.

These hardy snakes are very adaptable and can survive in the boreal forests of Canada as well as the deserts of Arizona. They are well-suited to living in forests, grasslands, fields, marshes, and even urban areas like parks and yards.

Nearly every US state has at least one type of garter snake!

Garter snakes are a widespread genus of small, rear-fanged snakes native to North and Central America. They are a varied group, with about 35 known species and even more subspecies. Their closest relatives include corn snakes, rat snakes and water snakes.

The name ‘garter snake’ is used to describe members of the Thamnophis genus, in the family Colubridae

They reach a maximum size of around five feet, however different species can vary in length from 18 inches to nearly 5 feet long as adults. They are all slender bodied, with a thin head and neck, large, round eyes, blunt snout and keeled scales. Their keeled scales give them a rough, ridged texture and appearance.

Surprisingly, these little snakes are venomous, but they are not considered dangerous to humans. They use a neurotoxic venom to help subdue amphibians, but it is not strong enough or delivered in large enough quantities to harm a human.

Some people who are more sensitive to their venom may experience minor swelling, but no serious reactions have been reported.

Most species of garter snake are known for their tolerance of many different environments.

These reptiles can survive in nearly every climate, from sub-zero temperatures in Canada to temperatures over 100°F in Arizona. They are one of the hardiest and most adaptable groups of snakes in the world!

Garter snakes are also known for their unique methods of communicating with each other through pheromones. In the spring several species form large breeding balls. Males and females release pheromones to help them identify each other.

How To Identify Them

Garter snakes are a very diverse group of reptiles which can make identifying them hard. However, there are a few traits that all types of garter snakes share:

  • Keeled scales
  • Round pupils
  • Slender head
  • Blunt snout

All garter snakes have a large ridge down the middle of each scale, which gives them a rough appearance. These keeled scales help them move around in wet and marshy habitats.

Unlike many species of venomous snake that have slit pupils, garter snakes have round pupils and large eyes. This gives them a rather cute appearance.

When identifying a garter snake you should also look for a long, thin body and oval-shaped head. This method only works on calm snakes, as many puff up their bodies and flatten their heads to make themselves look bigger when threatened. They will also curl up, inflate their bodies with air and hiss loudly.

Finally, garter snakes are known to bite, especially if handled in the wild. Instead of striking quickly and letting go, they will often hang on and chew to inject their venom. Though unpleasant, their bites are not severe because of their small size.

Types Of Garter Snakes

There are between 31 and 35 recognized garter snake species.

Even field guides contradict each other when it comes to how many garter snakes there are.

There are often disagreements about whether some species are subspecies of a single species or are themselves a distinct species. For example, the Mexican wandering garter was previously classified as a subspecies of the western terrestrial garter. However, a more thorough look at the differences between the two has led herpetologists to currently list it as its own species.

Over the years, herpetologists have found it difficult to classify all the different species and subspecies.

The most widespread species is the common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). This species has 12 subspecies distributed across parts of northern Mexico, Canada and the United States. These snakes are found in nearly every region of North America, except for the hottest and driest parts of the US and Mexico.

1. Aquatic

Aquatic garter snake on a white background

The aquatic garter snake is found along the coasts of Oregon and California. The species has two color morphs: The first morph is blue-gray with a beige stripe on its back and white spots; the second has a yellow dorsal stripe and black spots. The aquatic garter snake is more likely to be seen swimming than other species.

2. Blackbelly

Blackbelly garter snakes are olive, gray, orange, or brown with a light brown or yellow underbelly. Their defining feature is a solid black line that runs down their stomachs. They are native to the high elevations of the Central Mexican Plateau and are not a species you will likely see in your backyard.

3. Blackneck

Blackneck garter on a rock

The blackneck garter snake is named after the large, solid black patches on each side of its head. There are actually two subspecies, the western blackneck, which grows to 42 inches long, and the eastern subspecies, which only reaches 20 inches. Both subspecies can be identified by their black necks and are found in the southwestern US, Mexico and Guatemala.

4. Blue-striped

Blue-striped garter close-up on a dirt path

The blue-striped garter snake is found exclusively along the Gulf Coast of Florida and is a subspecies of the common garter snake. They are one of the easiest types of garter snake to identify because of their blue stripes. This garter has three vibrant blue stripes, one along its back and one on each side, which stand out against their charcoal gray base color.

RELATED: 15 Types of Blue Snakes With Pictures

5. Butler’s

Butler’s garter (about to shed) close-up on grass

Butler’s garter snake is native to Ohio, Indiana, southeastern Michigan and parts of Ontario. They have a base color that varies from black or brown to olive, with three yellowish-orange horizontal stripes. These yellowish-orange stripes are higher up from the belly and wider than other species.

6. California Red-sided

California red-sided garter on sand

The California red-sided garter is a beautiful subspecies of the common garter snake. They are native to California’s freshwater coastal marshes and sand dunes and are very hard to miss! These snakes have bright red and black alternating side bars, a red head and a pale cream or blue dorsal stripe. Unfortunately, this subspecies is endangered due to habitat loss and collection from the wild.

7. Checkered

Checkered garter on a white background

The checkered garter snake lives in the dry regions of southwestern US, Mexico and parts of Central America. They are typically gray or olive green with a beige to yellow dorsal stripe. This species is covered with a checkerboard pattern of black and gray squares, which are boldest along the back and fade on the sides.

8. Coastal

Coastal garter close-up on dirt

The coastal garter snake is a subspecies of the western terrestrial garter snake found along California’s northern coast. They are highly variable in appearance, so it can be tricky to identify one. Some snakes are black with a yellow dorsal stripe and red side stripes. Others are dark red or rust-colored with dark brown checkerboard markings on the side.

9. Common

Common garter curled up in some leaves

The common garter snake is one of North America’s largest wild snake populations. If you see a garter snake in your yard, the chances are good that it is one of the 13 subspecies of this snake. A typical common garter snake is black, charcoal, or olive with a creamy yellow dorsal stripe and two darker yellow side stripes. They reach an average length of 22 inches.

10. Eastern

Eastern garter curled up on a log

The eastern garter snake is perhaps the most common subspecies of the common garter. They are found across the eastern half of North America in woodlands, savannahs and wetlands. Eastern subspecies are dark gray or black with a white dorsal stripe and two yellow side stripes. They occasionally have a faint pattern of black bars between their dorsal and side stripes.

11. Eastern Ribbon

Eastern ribbon snake basking on a log

The eastern ribbon garter snake lives in the eastern US, from Florida to Maine. At first glance, eastern ribbons look identical to the common garter snake, but they have much thinner bodies and heads. They also have a white spot in front of each eye that common species do not have.

12. Giant

The giant garter snake is the largest species of garter snake, reaching up to five feet long. They are often seen hunting for fish and amphibians in the water. This species does not have any bars or checkerboard markings. They are typically dark brown or black with three orange stripes and a yellow-orange belly.

13. Mexican

Mexican garter on a white background

Mexican garter snakes are a medium-sized species that grow between 18 and 40 inches long. Mexican garter snakes have 10 known subspecies that all live in lake basins in central Mexico. They are dark gray or olive with two white, mottled side stripes and a solid yellow dorsal stripe. As the stripes reach the tail, they darken to match the snake’s dark gray or olive color.

14. Mexican Wandering

Mexican wandering garter snakes are native to the pine-oak forests of Mexico’s gulf coast. They are more terrestrial than other species and tend to live farther away from water. This species is olive with cream-colored horizontal stripes and a bright orange belly. They are often patterned with black spots that sometimes entirely cover their stripes.

15. Narrow-headed

Narrow-headed garter snakes are native to Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico. They typically feed on fish and salamanders and are named for their thin, spade-shaped heads. Their base color is olive, brownish red, or dark gray and they do not have any stripes. Instead, they are patterned with dark brown and green bars.

16. Northern Mexican

Northern Mexican garter snakes are a rare subspecies of the Mexican garter snake. This species has three light yellow stripes and is found in the Southwestern US and parts of Mexico. They are born with a light gray or beige base color that darkens with age, becoming completely black in senior adults.

17. Northwestern

Northwestern garter curled up on moss

The northwestern garter snake is a highly variable species that is extremely difficult to identify. They share their Pacific Northwest range with other types of garter snakes which makes identification even harder! These snakes are dark brown, gray, black or olive with three yellow, white, or red stripes. Their bellies are white or yellow near the head and become a darker blue-gray closer to the tail, commonly patterned with red or peach spots.

18. Plains

Plains garter snake

The plains garter snake is a very hardy species that lives in central North America, from Canada to Texas. They are grayish green with yellow side stripes and a solid orange dorsal stripe. Unlike common species, the plains garter snake has thick black bars on its upper jaw and light yellow spots on its head.

19. Puget Sound

Puget Sound garter on a white background.

Puget Sound garter snakes are found in a small part of northwestern Washington and southwestern British Columbia. Puget Sound snakes are black with a pale blue belly and stripes. Their dorsal stripe is very thin and in some individuals is absent. This species has a beautiful, unique coloration not found in other subspecies.

20. San Francisco

San Francisco garter close-up on a black background.

The San Francisco garter snake is by far the most stunning and beautiful snake on this list! This species has a neon blue dorsal stripe outlined with black, followed by two red side stripes and a final blue stripe above the belly. Their heads are red with blue and black scales around the mouth. Unfortunately, this subspecies is endangered due to overcollection for the pet trade.

21. Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz garter curled up on a forest floor

The Santa Cruz garter snake is a subspecies of the aquatic and is native to a tiny patch of land in western California. Santa Cruz garter snakes have a base color of dark, charcoal gray with black bars on either side. They have a single, yellowish-orange dorsal stripe that runs from the back of their neck to the tip of their tail and a cream, yellow, or orange lower jaw.

22. Sierra

The Sierra garter snake is an aquatic species from California and Oregon. They have a dark brown base and a pattern of alternating black, cream, and rust bars on their back. Their patterns give them an interesting, almost pixelated appearance! These snakes have a faint red dorsal stripe and two thick yellow side stripes.

23. Texas

The Texas garter snake is a rare subspecies of the common garter snake and lives in parts of Kansas, South Dakota and northern Texas. They are slate gray or greenish black with a red-orange dorsal stripe and yellow side stripes. The dorsal stripe of the Texas subspecies is a darker orange than the similar-looking eastern garter.

24. Two-Striped

There are two color variants of the two-striped garter snake. The first has a smooth, even color and stripes, while the other is patterned with dark splotches on its sides. This slender species is olive brown and has a cream-colored mouth, two horizontal stripes along its sides and no dorsal stripe.

25. Western Ribbon

The western ribbon garter snake is a long, slim-bodied snake found in the western US, Mexico and Central America. They can grow up to 50 inches long and can have tails that measure nearly a third of their total body length. This species is black with a solid orange stripe down its back and two fainter yellow stripes along its sides.

Garter Snakes In…

Nearly every state in the US has at least one type of garter snake. Below we share some of the most common states for garter snakes to live and which species you can expect to find there.

Arizona

There are five types of garter snakes in Arizona:

  • Black-necked
  • Western terrestrial
  • Mexican
  • Checkered
  • Narrow-headed

In the Sonoran Desert, the most common species are the checkered and the black-necked garter snakes. They are often found near irrigation canals and cattle tanks. The Mexican and narrow-headed species are protected and cannot be legally collected from the wild.

Connecticut

One of the fourteen snakes native to Connecticut is a garter snake. The common garter is widely distributed across the state of Connecticut and is one of the most common snakes in the region.

Kansas

Kansas is home to four species of garter snake:

  • Common
  • Plains
  • Western ribbon
  • Checkered

The first three species are quite common, but the checkered garter snake is listed as threatened. Barber, Comanche, Harper, and Sumner counties have designated critical habitat areas for the checkered species. The common and western ribbon snake are mostly found in the eastern part of Kansas, whereas the plains garter snake is found in the western half.

Kentucky

The common garter snake, eastern and western ribbon are all found in Kentucky. The common species has the largest wild population of the three and is frequently found across the entire state.

Eastern ribbon snakes are found mostly in the western third of the state and isolated parts of the central and northeastern regions. The western ribbon snake has a limited range in the very western corner of Kentucky. It is listed by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources as a species of conservation concern.

Maryland

The eastern ribbon snake and common garter snake are both found in Maryland. Both species tend to live near ponds, vernal pools and other wetlands.

The common species lives in every Maryland county, while the ribbon snake is more commonly found in the eastern part of the state. In Maryland, the common garter snake is one of the first snakes to be seen in early spring, and one of the last to be seen in late autumn.

Montana

You can find the terrestrial, common, and the plains garter snake in Montana. The first two species are distributed throughout the entire state, while the plains species is most common in interior and eastern areas away from the coast. In Montana, the common garter is known to travel up to 10.5 miles from its burrow in search of prey.

New York

The eastern and northern subspecies of ribbon snake and the eastern garter snake live in New York. All three snakes typically live near water and are very good at surviving the harsh winters of New York. During the coldest months, these snakes go into a dormant period called brumation. They start to brumate between September and November and become active again in March or April.

Oklahoma

Oklahoma is home to five species of garter snake:

  • Western terrestrial
  • Checkered
  • Western ribbon
  • Plains
  • Common

There are also several subspecies of garter snakes, including the red-sided and the wandering garter snake. The wandering subspecies is a rare snake in Oklahoma and is protected by law against being killed or kept as a pet.

Oregon

There are four types of garter snake in Oregon:

  • Common
  • Western aquatic
  • Western terrestrial
  • Northwestern

All four species share overlapping ranges so it can be difficult to tell them apart. The rarest garter snake in Oregon is the western aquatic species. They are typically found in the marshy areas of Oregon’s southwestern corner.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is home to three types of garter snake:

  • Common
  • Shorthead
  • Eastern ribbon

The shorthead garter snake is usually found close to fields and feeds almost entirely on earthworms. The eastern ribbon and common garter snakes eat amphibians and other invertebrates.

Garter Snake vs Garden Snake Differences

You may have heard people talk about garden snakes. They are small, slender snakes that are frequently found in gardens, lawns, meadows and yards. What are garden snakes and how are they different from garter snakes?

The answer is that these two snakes are exactly the same.

There is a common misconception that they are two different species. “Garden snake” is just another name for the common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis).

The name ‘garden snake’ comes from this snake’s tendency to show up in gardens and lawns.

Common garter snakes have an enormous range across North America and survive in many different environments. One suitable habitat happens to include many urban and suburban gardens.

Though some homeowners don’t like the idea of snakes in their garden, these harmless reptiles are actually very beneficial. Garter snakes are a great form of natural pest control that help reduce the number of garden pests and act as a repellent for many more.

Whether you call them garter snakes or garden snakes, chances are you might see them around!

Have you seen any of the garter snakes on our list? Let us know in the comments.

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Nigel Robert

Nigel Robert

Nigel is the managing editor at More Reptiles. He is a lifelong reptile lover, biologist and wildlife consultant who brings a decade of experience working in reptile conservation and consultancy. He joined our team in 2020 and when he’s not reviewing reptile care sheets, he’s out looking for reptiles in the wild! Nigel is dedicated to herpetology and conserving wildlife which is why he is a member of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Zoological Association of America, iNaturalist and the Nature Conservancy.

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