Almost everyone can identify a “garter snake” in Michigan!
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 Michigan!
- *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 Michigan!
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 Michigan 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 Michigan 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. Butler’s Garter Snake
- Thamnophis butleri
- Adults are slender and range from 15 to 20 inches in length.
- Coloration ranges from olive-brown to black with three yellow to orange stripes, one down the back and one down each side.
- Two rows of dark spots may be visible between the back and side stripes, and the head is usually small.
Butler’s Garter Snakes look almost identical to Eastern Garter Snakes in Michigan.
So how do you tell the difference?
What’s unique to Butler’s Garter Snakes is the placement of their side stripes! Technically speaking, they are centered on the third scale row up from the large, elongated scales on the underside of the body. The side stripes also overlap the adjacent second and fourth scale rows.
But unless you’re a herpetologist or want to inspect a snake closely, this probably means nothing to you. For the rest of us, their head is typically a bit small compared to other garter snakes. In addition, when they are threatened, instead of fleeing, they tend to thrash around in place.
This species is considered endangered in parts of its range. Industrial development of agricultural land has caused significant habitat loss and degradation in their range. If you want to find one, look in moist grassy habitats, typically under cover objects like rocks, logs, boards, and other debris.
Do you need additional help identifying garter snakes?
Try this field guide!
Which of these garter snakes have you seen in Michigan?
Leave a comment below!