Almost everyone can identify a “garter snake” in Massachusetts!
But here’s the problem:
There are multiple species and sub-species of garter snakes! Therefore, figuring out the identity of the SPECIFIC snake you are observing can be challenging. This is especially true since many of them have similar appearances and behaviors.
Today, you are going to learn about 3 garter snake species in Massachusetts!
- *Just a quick note – to be officially considered a garter snake, the species must be in the genus Thamnophis*
#1. Eastern Garter Snake
- Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis
- Adults typically range from 18 to 26 inches in length.
- Coloration varies and can be mixtures of green, brown, or black. Look for a distinct yellow or whitish stripe down the center of their back.
- Some individuals may exhibit a checkered body pattern.
- Subspecies of the Common Garter Snake.
Eastern Garter Snakes are common and easy to locate in Massachusetts!
In fact, they are typically the snake species that people come across the most. They are well-adapted to living around people and can often be found in city parks, farmland, cemeteries, and suburban lawns and gardens. Though it’s not required, they prefer grassy environments near freshwater sources such as ponds, lakes, ditches, and streams.
Look for these garter snakes in Massachusetts basking in the sun in grassy areas near cover.
Eastern Garter Snakes will protect themselves if they are cornered or feel threatened. For example, if you capture or continually disturb one, it will defecate and release a foul-smelling musk from glands. It’s also common for them to bite as a last resort!
The Eastern Garter Snake most commonly preys on toads, frogs, slugs, salamanders, fish, and worms. However, they are very opportunistic and will eat other insects and small animals they can overpower. They’re active during both the day and night, depending on the temperature.
These garter snakes have a high birth rate (up to 50 babies!) and adapt well to human-disturbed habitats! Because of these traits, this species is not threatened and is relatively common and widespread.
#2. Eastern Ribbon Snake
- Thamnophis saurita
- Adults typically range from 18 to 26 inches in length. A slender snake with a long tail!
- Coloration is brown to nearly black with three bright yellow to cream stripes; one down the back and one down each side.
- Snout and entire head are brownish, lips and underneath head are white.
Did you see a slender garter snake in Massachusetts with a long tail?
If so, it was probably an Eastern Ribbon Snake!
This species is semi-aquatic and RARELY found far from a source of water. Look for them in a wide variety of habitats, including marshes, grassy floodplains, streams, ditches with grass, wet areas in meadows, and woodlands adjacent to wetlands. Ribbon snakes are even found in suburban areas that match these conditions.
You might spot these snakes basking on branches of trees, bushes, or grasses overhanging the water. They typically hunt in the water and prey on amphibians, fish, and invertebrates.
If disturbed, these snakes will quickly flee into grass or brushy areas. If caught, they are not aggressive and rarely bite. But you can expect them to defecate and spray musk onto your hands. In the wild, Eastern Ribbon Snakes rely on blending into their surroundings to get away from predators.
#3. Maritime Garter Snake
- Thamnophis sirtalis pallidulus
- Adults can reach 40 inches in length!
- Coloration varies but is typically dark green, brown, or black. The stripes that are common on other garter snake species are missing or poorly developed.
- Features a yellowish chin, upper jaw, and belly. Some individuals may display a checkered or speckled patterning on the back.
- Subspecies of the Common Garter Snake.
Maritime Garter Snakes adapt well to humans in northeastern Massachusetts!
They are habitat generalists and can be found almost everywhere! Look for them in forests, shrublands, fields, rocky areas, wetlands, shorelines, and urban and agricultural areas. They’re commonly spotted when moving rocks or logs, where they hide underneath for protection and thermoregulation.
To survive the harsh northern winters in Massachusetts, these garter snakes hibernate below the frost line. They’ll utilize mammal and crayfish burrows, rock crevices, underground cavities, ant mounds, and manmade structures such as foundations. Interestingly, they often hibernate communally with other snakes!
This species isn’t considered threatened and can live to be TWENTY years old! They’re relatively common and can tolerate moderately disturbed human habitats well. However, populations near roads frequently have high road mortality rates.
Do you need additional help identifying garter snakes?
Try this field guide!
Which of these garter snakes have you seen in Massachusetts?
Leave a comment below!