Almost everyone can identify a “garter snake” in Oklahoma!
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 6 garter snake species in Oklahoma!
- *Just a quick note – to be officially considered a garter snake, the species must be in the genus Thamnophis*
#1. Red-sided Garter Snake
- Thamnophis proximus parietalis
- Normally dark green to black, but color varies.
- Three yellow stripes, one down the back and one down each side.
- As the name suggests, there are red or orange bars down their sides, located between the yellow stripes.
- Subspecies of the Common Garter Snake.
Like other garter snakes, they are habitat generalists. Look for them in eastern Oklahoma everywhere, including forests, shrublands, wetlands, fields, and rocky areas. Their favorite foods include frogs, earthworms, and leeches! YUM! 🙂
In some areas, after emerging from hibernation, there are not enough females for all the males. In these cases, “mating frenzies” occur, and dozens and dozens of these snakes can be found together.
To survive colder months in Oklahoma, Red-sided Garter Snakes have to hibernate BELOW the frost line. Depending on the area they are located in, it can be hard to find suitable locations. So the few adequate hibernation dens can shelter hundreds, even thousands, of snakes! To see an example, watch the video below:
#2. Western Ribbon Snake
- Thamnophis proximus
- Adults range from 17 to 50 inches in length. A slender snake with a long tail!
- Coloration is blackish, brown, or olive with three light-colored stripes; one down the back and one down each side.
- The sides and top of the head are dark, and the upper lip is whitish.
Did you see a slender garter snake in Oklahoma with a long tail?
If so, it was probably a Western Ribbon Snake! This semi-aquatic species is rarely found far from a water source. They typically occupy brush-heavy areas around streams, lakes, ponds, and other water bodies. You may also spot them basking on rocks, flat vegetation, and dry sandy areas near water.
The Western Ribbon Snake has an incredible, unique hunting technique. As they move over land, they make quick, light thrusts of their head and upper body in different directions in sequences of three. It’s similar to a strike, but with their mouth closed. This action disturbs resting frogs, which alerts the garter snake to their location. From there, the ribbon snake uses its superior speed to catch its prey.
If they feel threatened, this species will flee into the water or hide in thick brush. Their coloration provides superb camouflage in dense, brushier areas. If grabbed, they rarely bite but will thrash around, defecate, and release musk from their anal glands. This species can also shed its tail to escape, but unfortunately, the tail doesn’t regenerate like some lizard species.
Currently, the Western Ribbon Snake has a healthy population, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have threats. Aquatic habitat degradation and loss and pesticides and road chemicals are believed to have serious negative impacts on their numbers.
#3. Plains Garter Snake
- Thamnophis radix
- Adults average 36 inches in length.
- Coloration is gray-green with a distinctive orange stripe down the back and a greenish-yellow stripe down each side.
- Distinct light yellow spots on the very top of the head!
Plains Garter Snakes are found in the Oklahoma panhandle in prairies and grasslands near freshwater sources. They have a fairly large population and adapt well to human-modified landscapes, and you may spot them near abandoned buildings, trash heaps, or vacant lots.
This species is considered to be one of the most cold-tolerant of all snakes! In fact, they will even come out of hibernation on warmer winter days.
The Plains Garter Snake feeds primarily on earthworms, slugs, and small amphibians. However, they have also been observed preying on small mammals and birds, including the Eastern Meadowlark and Bank Swallow.
#4. Black-necked Garter Snake
- Western Black-necked Garter Snakes are dark olive with an orange-yellow stripe down the back and a yellow to white stripe down each side. It can be up to 42 inches long.
- Eastern Black-necked Garter Snakes are smaller and only grow up to 20 inches in length. They have a checkered pattern of black and yellow on their body, in between their three stripes.
- Both subspecies have a gray head that contrasts strongly with the body. In addition, there is a dark blotch on each side of the neck.
This species is found in many habitats, including desert scrub, plains, arid grasslands, and pine-oak woodlands. They’re almost always found in Oklahoma in association with water sources such as streams, ciénegas, and cattle tanks.
There are two sub-species of this garter snake; the Western AND Eastern. They look different (see photo above), but they also behave uniquely. The Western subspecies (Thamnophis cyrtopsis cyrtopsis) are water snakes and most often found in the actual water. The Eastern (Thamnophis cyrtopsis ocellatus) subspecies prefer to live on DRY LAND that is very close to water.
The Black-necked Garter Snake’s preferred prey is frogs, toads, and their tadpoles, including poisonous species like the Sonoran Desert Toad. However, they have been known to feed on a wide range of other prey, including earthworms, skinks, salamanders, crustaceans, and birds.
Black-necked Garter Snakes adapt well to introduced species like the American Bullfrog. They have also benefited from the creation of cattle tanks since these snakes are dependent upon water.
#5. Texas Garter Snake
- Thamnophis sirtalis annectens
- Adults range from 15 to 28 inches in length.
- Coloration is greenish-black.
- Dark orange or red stripe down the back and a yellowish stripe down each side.
- Subspecies of the Common Garter Snake.
Texas Garter Snakes are hard to find in Oklahoma!
Even in their range, they are relatively uncommon, and you will seldom find them in large numbers. When Texas Garter Snakes are located, it’s typically near fresh water in damp sand or dense vegetation. They look incredibly similar to Eastern and Red-sided Garter Snakes, except for the distinctive red stripe that runs down their back!
They’ll use various places for cover, including logs, stones, plants, underground burrows, and human garbage like old metal and boards. They use these spots for protection from predators and to help them thermoregulate.
Texas Garter Snakes are harmless and less aggressive than other garter snake species. They rarely bite, except for young snakes, when they feel threatened. Adults most likely will just defecate and release foul-smelling musk from their anal glands onto your hands!
#6. Checkered Garter Snake
- Thamnophis marcianus
- Adults are typically 18 to 24 inches in length.
- Coloration is typically greenish. They have three yellow or orange stripes; one down the center of the back and one down each side.
- Look for a distinctive black checkerboard pattern on its back.
- Cream or yellow crescent marks on each side of the head are followed by a dark blotch on the neck.
The Checkered Gartersnake is most commonly found in western Oklahoma in desert and grassland habitats. Look for them near water sources, such as rivers, lakes, wetlands, cattle tanks, canals, and ditches. Living in arid conditions, these garter snakes are incredibly good at finding water sources.
These garter snakes are active both day and night, depending on the temperature. For example, they are more nocturnal during the heat of summer.
Checkered Gartersnakes are opportunistic predators who feed on a wide variety of prey. They typically consume frogs, salamanders, toads, earthworms, small fish, lizards, snakes, slugs, and crayfish. However, they’ve also been reported to eat mice, raw horse meat, and other snakes of their own species in captivity!
Their populations are not currently threatened. Luckily, they tolerate human development relatively well, although draining wetlands and other water sources harm their population. These garter snakes are also able to co-exist with introduced species like the American Bullfrog.
Do you need additional help identifying garter snakes?
Try this field guide!
Which of these garter snakes have you seen in Oklahoma?
Leave a comment below!