Published on February 18, 2013 by Amy
Just like the name implies, the Common Garter snake is the most common and abundant species of snake in North America. If you have only seen one snake in your life, chances are it was probably a Common Garter Snake.
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Garter Snakes were named after a fashion accessory for men called a garter. Garters were used to hold up men’s socks. They were usually striped lengthwise, which resembled the longitudinal stripes which are found on the Garter snake.
The garter snake is the most widely distributed snake in North America. It ranges from coast to coast and can be found as far south as Florida in the United States and as far north as James Bay in Canada. The common garter is the first snake to appear in the spring and can often be seen before all the snow is entirely gone. These snakes are often seen at this time basking on rocks, woodpiles and low lying brush.
This species also lives in the widest variety of habitats. It can be found in woodlands, marshes, swamps, fields, farmland, the shores of ponds and streams, roadsides, and city parks. There does seem to be a preference for damp areas. Most of the preferred prey (frogs, earthworms etc.) is found in this habitat.
Common in rural gardens, it is sometimes refered to as the garden snake. Garter Snakes enjoy basking in the sun. This helps to warm up their body temperature. This habit adds to their visibility. If you would like to find a garter snake, the easiest way would be to look under logs, boards, rocks and other flat items. These items give them a cool place to hide when the weather is too hot. Snakes are ectothermic and their surroundings play an important part in regulating their body temperature.
In northern areas, thousands of Common Garter Snakes may gather together to spend the winter in a communal den.
Garter Snakes are quite opportunistic when it comes to selecting prey for their diet. They will feed on whatever is in abundance. Garter Snakes will eat earthworms, frogs, minnows, salamanders, and small birds. Unlike other predators, they are able to eat toads.
The Common Garter Snake is considered a medium to small snake. The maximum length is approximately just over 4 feet. The head appears distinct from the body. The body is slender compared to other snakes.
Coloration among this species varies greatly. It is not always the best characteristic to use for identification. Generally the body is black to brown with stripes that run longitudinally down the body. There is one stripe down the middle of the back and a stripe on either side of the body. The latter stripes are always located on the second and third scale rows. This is the best way to identify most races. The stripes may range from yellowish to orange to red.
Garter Snakes have a red tongue with a black tip. Scales on snakes in general are either keeled or smooth. Keeled scales have a prominent ridge which gives the skin a texture which feels rougher to the touch than a snake with smooth scales. Garter snakes have keeled scales. There are 19 rows of scales at the mid point of the body.
On the underside there is a single row of scales on the belly called ventral scales. The scales separate into rows of two at the point where the tail starts and the body ends. Females have shorter tails than males. Females also show a bulge where the tail and body meet. If you examine a male from above, you will notice that the body shows a smooth taper as it changes into the tail.
Garter snakes are not poisonous. Although if they bite, a mild redness or swelling may occur. Garter snakes may bite as a defense when they are picked up. They may also exude a foul smelling secretion to deter being handled.
The Common Garter Snake begins it’s reproductive cycle in the spring when males and females emerge from their winter hibernation quarters.
A female normally gives birth to 10 to 30, usually under 40, but possibly up to 87!
Females are live bearing, as opposed to some other snakes which lay eggs. Once the young are born, they must fend for themselves. No parental care is given. Snakes are fast growers and are considered mature by fall of the next year.