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Garter Snakes of Canada

Canada has six species of garter snakes, ranging from 45-97 cm long. They are olive brown to black, with yellow, orange or red stripes running horizontally down the body.

These small snakes are found from Vancouver Island to the Maritimes, north into the Northwest Territories, and are absent only from Newfoundland. They live in a wide variety of habitats, but are generally found near water.

These snakes have no venom, but many species vibrate their tail in dry vegetation to imitate the sound made by rattlesnakes.

All species have a common defence mechanism of releasing a foul smelling scent from their anal glands near the base of the tail. They may bite if handled, but are harmless. Garter snakes are active during the day, and may often be seen basking during the early morning hours.

common garter snakes

Butler’s Garter Snake Thamnophis butleri

  • Range: Southwestern Ontario, south to Ohio
  • Similar to the Common Garter and Eastern Ribbon Snake
  • Smallest garter snake in Ontario
  • Live in open, wetland edges
  • A gentle, non-aggressive snake
  • Move swiftly through grass, but if placed on dirt or frightened, they move in a side-winding motion with little forward movement
  • Prehensile tail grips vegetation when escaping predators
  • Home range size is around 270 square metres
  • Eat mainly earthworms
  • Canadian range makes up the majority of their total range
  • Threatened by loss of habitat, draining of wetlands and being run over on roads

Common (Red-sided) Garter Snake Thamnophis sirtalis

  • Range: NWT, British Columbia to the Maritimes, south through USA
  • Most abundant and widespread snake in Canada
  • Widest range of any North American snake; found as far north as Ft. Smith, NWT
  • Melanistic (black) snakes with white chins have been found in Ontario and Nova Scotia
  • Can tolerate cool weather, and may be active year round in the southern part of their range
  • Up to 8,000 individuals may occupy some winter dens
  • Travel many kilometres from winter den to summer feeding areas
  • Frequently seen in moist vegetation
  • Eat frogs, toads, salamanders, worms, mice, small fish
  • Often form mating balls, with up to 100 males intertwined around a single female
  • Young remain together for a few weeks after hatching
  • Known lifespan up to 14 years

Eastern Ribbon Snake Thamnophis sauritus

  • Range : Southern Ontario, Nova Scotia, south to Florida
  • More slender and streamlined than other garter snakes
  • Have a very long tail
  • Semi-aquatic, and always live in low, wet places
  • May be found climbing or basking in low bushes next to water
  • Take to water if pursued, gliding across the surface
  • May become temporarily inactive during very dry summers
  • Timid and nervous species
  • Isolated population in Nova Scotia is listed as endangered
  • Preferred food is amphibians, and do not eat earthworms
  • Known lifespan up to four years

Northwestern Garter Snake Thamnophis ordinoides

  • Range : Vancouver Island, south western British Columbia, south to California
  • Colour is variable, and both white and black specimens are fairly common
  • Eat mainly slugs and earthworms
  • Rarely enter water
  • Common species on Vancouver Island and the lower mainland of British Columbia
  • Found in open grassy area and pastures
  • Most active on sunny days
  • Known lifespan up to 15 years

Plains Garter Snake Thamnophis radix

  • Range : Southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, south to New Mexico
  • Most colourful garter snake; have bright yellow or orange stripes and a checkerboard pattern on the back
  • A common species throughout their range
  • Found in wet meadows and open prairies
  • Hunt along the edge of water bodies
  • Favourite prey species is the Northern Leopard Frog, which is rapidly disappearing
  • May be seen basking on warm days
  • Hibernate in mammal burrows or rock piles
  • Up to 92 young have been born in a single litter
  • Males seek out a female by following her scent trail, and learn the direction by sensing concentrations on opposite sides of grass blades
  • Known lifespan up to seven years

Western Terrestrial Garter Snake Thamnopis elegans

  • Range : British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, south to Mexico
  • Differ from other garter snakes with eight scales on their upper lip
  • Also called Wandering Garter Snake
  • Adults can be up to one metre in length
  • Often take to water if disturbed
  • May be seen basking during the morning hours
  • Hunt in tidal pools for fish left behind at low tide
  • Eat soft-bodied invertebrates such as slugs and earthworms
  • Inhabit open forest and grassy areas always near water
  • Found from sea level to 3,200 metres
  • Prey captured in water and on land
  • Known lifespan up to nine years

All information taken from Canadian Skin & Scales written by Pat Bumstead

Common Garter Snake Photo by Mark Bradley [Online]. Natural History Notebooks. Canadian Museum of Nature.

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