Species group: Garter and Ribbon Snakes
Other common names: Common Garter Snake
Scientific name: Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis
The Eastern Garter Snake, one of 13 subspecies of the Common Garter Snake, has introduced countless aspiring herpetologists to snake-keeping.
Although often thought of as “child’s pets”, it makes a fascinating addition to any collection. Most individuals are attractively-colored, adjust well to handling, and are relatively easy to breed in captivity. Eastern Garter Snakes do not require rodents as food, and bear their young alive…all told, ideal pets for most any snake fancier!
The huge range extends from southern Canada (Quebec and Ontario) through most of the eastern and central USA, from Maine to Minnesota to southeastern Texas and Florida. Highly adaptable, Eastern Garter Snakes may be found along creeks, streams and canals, as well as in meadows, swamps, forests, rocky hillsides, farms, suburban gardens and even within NYC and other large cities. At home on land and in shallow water, Garter Snakes shelter beneath leaf litter, rocks, logs and human rubbish.
Appearance / Health:
The thinly-built Eastern Garter Snake averages 18-26 inches in length, with rare individuals slightly exceeding 4 feet. The dark-colored body is usually marked by three yellow lines along its top and sides. However, some specimens exhibit a checkered pattern, while in others the background coloration is reddish or blue-tinted gray. A wide variety of color morphs have been established by breeders.
Properly cared-for Eastern Garter Snakes are among the hardiest of reptile pets. “Blister disease” and other skin infections can take hold if your pet is kept in a damp terrarium. Wild caught specimens should be checked carefully for mites.
Behavior / Temperament:
Youngsters and wild-caught individuals may bite and release musk when approached, but many calm down in time and accept gentle handling. However, many feel that Garter Snakes are best viewed as pets to observe rather than handle…and in a large, planted terrarium, they will provide a great deal to observe!
Youngsters may be raised in 5-10 gallon aquariums, and the average adult will do fine in a 20 gallon tank. Garters are well-suited to life in naturalistic terrariums stocked with sturdy live plants (Chinese Evergreens, Pothos, Cast Iron Plants). Driftwood and branches can be added as basking sites. A reptile cave or other hideaway should always be available. A mix of topsoil, sphagnum moss and forest-floor bedding works well in planted terrariums, while newspapers, washable terrarium liners or dead leaves can be used in simplified set-ups.
Eastern Garter Snakes fare best in a temperature range of 72-82 F, with a dip to 68-70 F at night and a basking spot of 82-85 F. Large enclosures are necessary if a thermal gradient (areas of different temperatures) is to be established. Thermal gradients allow snakes to regulate their body temperature by moving from hot to cooler areas. There is some evidence that Garter Snakes may benefit from exposure to low levels of UVB and UVA light, but many have been kept and bred without access to either.
In the wild, Eastern Garter Snakes are opportunistic feeders, taking fish, tadpoles, earthworms and other invertebrates, salamanders, occasional nestling rodents, toads, and frogs – both live and road-killed! Earthworms, goldfishes and minnows can form the basis of the diet, with other fish species and a pink or fuzzy mouse being offered on occasion. Garter snakes have fast metabolisms (as snakes go!).Youngsters and gravid females should be fed every 3-4 days; adults every 4-6 days.
A cooling-off period of 6-8 weeks at 50-62 F and with a daylight cycle of 8 hours will often stimulate reproduction. Females give birth to 10-50+ live young after a gestation period of 2-3 months.
Written by Frank Indiviglio
good feeders, docile temperament, amazing color morphs, coloration, great starter snake, active hunters
Flighty Garters, swimming area, dreadful nasty musking, notorious muskers, wild-caught individuals
water bath, little guppy feeders, widely distributed reptile, science classroom
A tale of a rescued snake
My dad was the curator of Natural History at Derby Museum, and the Environmental Health Department of the local council regularly called him with questions about strange animals (such as insects hiding in bunches of bananas) that had been discovered.
One day, a terrified garter snake was brought into the museum, by the Environmental Health officers, being shaken up and down in a plastic bucket. It had been found in someone's greenhouse, and was obviously an escaped pet. The Environmental Health Officers obviously didn't know that garter snakes are harmless creatures - although they can give a nip occasionally.
The poor snake was rehabilitated in a glass tank in the "animal corner" of my dad's gallery, and was later taken home to be our family pet. He seemed happy in a large glass tank, fitted with a lid with holes in it so he could breath, warmed by a lamp that was timed to come on during the day and turn off at night. The tank was furnished inside by a terracotta plant pot placed upside down so the snake could sleep in peace, with soil, plant material and leaf-litter to recreate his natural habitat.
By this time, the snake was much calmer, and was happy to be taken out and handled. He seemed quite relaxed, wrapping itself around our hands and up sleeves, and felt pleasant to the touch, cool and smooth, with strong muscles. We even put the snake in a shallow bath of cold water sometimes, and he would swim, but at about two feet long, there wasn't a lot of room for him!
Keeping the snake was fairly straightforward. He would eat small whitebait fish whole. We kept them in a bag in the freezer and defrost them in boiling water before giving them to the snake, and we loved watching him open his mouth wide to swallow his food. As a treat, my dad would give him live earthworms dug up from the garden, and then we really got to see the snake in action, striking its prey and swallowing it bit by bit, looking a bit like a deranged muppet!
I became very fond of the snake, and tried calling it several names, but although it was friendly, it was never going to respond to its name, which is why "Snaky" was the only name that stuck. One of the drawbacks of owning a snake is that it's not capable of giving affection to humans - it just does its own thing, and while they doesn't mind being handled, they probably just think that you're an unusually shaped branch.
My friends were impressed that I owned a snake, and the only time it bit anyone was one of my friends. I think Snaky mistook her finger for a worm. The bite drew blood, but my friend was thrilled and showed off her snake bite! Occasionally, he would escape, if the lid of his tank wasn't sealed correctly, but we usually found him basking under his lamp.
We never had to take snaky to the vet. He was very healthy, despite his trauma in the plastic bucket, and it was fascinating to watch processes such as him sloughing off his skin.
Eventually, we gave him away to some friends who had looked after the snake regularly when we were on holiday, as their larger snake had just died and they were missing him. He enjoyed several more years of his snaky life, proving that a garter snake is a fairly long-lived pet, suitable for families..
From Anne_Garage Oct 8 2015 3:20AM
Eastern Garter Snake - Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis
Garter Snakes are generally found near water in the wild and feed mainly on amphibians. They also readily accept fish, fish pieces, earthworms, and small mice. It is well known know that feeding dead fish can cause a deficiency in thiamine (Vitamin B1) and so it is important to provide them with a multivitamin supplement by dusting their food in it before feeding it. It is very important to provide these snakes with a varied diet as this seems to make a huge difference to their health and well being. I wouldn't recommend this as a first time snake but they are extremely interesting and if you are willing to put in the time they can make for amazing creatures to keep..
From RobWedderburn Oct 26 2015 3:29PM