The garter snakes of Canada total six species, 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 snake
Common Garter Snakes by Mark Bradley. © esrd.alberta.ca

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

47 Responses

  1. Amy Donaldson

    When i was growing up i used to see garter snakes all the time ….
    Now they are a rare sight
    What had happened to them ?

    • Like many other species, I suspect development and loss of wetland habitats may be affecting garter snakes. They like to hunt around edges of rivers, lakes and marshes but that is also where people like to live.

  2. I used to see garter snakes all the time when I was a kid, too, in the 1980s. I loved them. I thought they were just the coolest. Now they are practically nonexistent. Boy, are people ever messing up the world or what!

  3. My husband spotted a green snake with 2 white dots behind the head, any idea what type of snake it would be? In central Alberta?

    • Pat Bumstead

      The only snake that should be in that area would be a garter snake. I can’t explain the white dots, although a few garter snakes in Ontario have been seen with various white markings here and there.

  4. Bob Reading

    I live in Parksville on Van. Is. and we have; in our yard; striped and dark (solid) green garter snakes. They seem to stay here amongst our foliage. Right now; I have a dark one and a striped on; I believe; mating beside the siding of our house, It is a nice warm place for them. They are approx. 15 to 18 inches long. We also have a few smaller ones; approx. 4 to 5 inches long. Our place is good place for them with lots of food and lots of diverse areas for them to hide or rest in; as well as hibernate the cooler months away. My wife and I enjoy having them around and look forward to seeing them every year. We are very protective when it comes to our snakes.

    • Pat Bumstead

      THANK YOU! Most of the comments we get are not from people who appreciate these little critters! I sincerely wish I had them in my yard…

  5. Venus Biggar

    My cat recently brought in a small pure black snake. Living in Alberta, I have no idea what it was. Any ideas?

    • Pat Bumstead

      As you’re in Alberta, I would guess it was a melanistic garter snake. Melanism in animals is caused by recessive gene which makes their colouring black instead of their normal colours. There have been a few black garter snakes recorded, but most of them are in Eastern Canada. Very rare in Alberta.

  6. William, Mingo

    Snakes r luv, Snakes r life!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. Brian Basken

    We have had a “family” of about 4 or 5 in a hole under our rhubarb. They come out to sun themselves now. There were some 2 years ago ,but not last year. There was one about 5 inches long. Cutest ever! Don’t bother my wife or myself. Should we be concerned that there will be hundreds soon ?

  8. Anonymous

    Just came back from my annual church trip to Anvil Island off Lion’s Bay in BC. There used to be a lot of different garter snakes there, around 5 years back. No much change happened to the island, except for a couple of new cabins, but I could only find one snake this year. I hope the poor things aren’t going extinct.

  9. Carol Bauman

    I had a garter snake today in Haliburton with a really large belly. Pregnant, do you think? Or, had it eaten something large? I have never seen one like that.

    Thank you.

  10. Anne Bazell

    I have 3 rather large dark colored with a touch of red lines running along the light colored lines in my greenhouse, a little freaky at times but I just watch and see where they are and work around them. I really dont like snakes give me the shivers but I am glad for them because we used to have mice in there doing plenty of damage to my vegees – now we dont. They are only in there first thing in the morning- getting warm I guess.

  11. Daniel Lopez

    I saw a black and yellow striped snake around NewMarket in a campground area and i was wondering if this particular snake is venomous, and if its gentle?

    • Pat Bumstead

      This would have been a Wandering Garter snake and no they are not venomous. All garter snakes are completely harmless.

  12. Patricia Cuttriss

    I have quite a number of solid black ? garter snakes (is this the recessive gene ?) in my yard along with the striped varieties – near Nanaimo, Vancouver Island.

    • Pat Bumstead

      Yes this is a recessive gene that causes melanism in animals. We seem to be getting more reports of black garter snakes lately, especially in moist climates like coastal BC and southern Ontario. I’ve never seen a black garter snake, but I bet they are absolutely stunning!

  13. Saw three of these today (two grown and one adolescent) at Lost Lake near Whistler, BC. They were sunbathing at around three in the afternoon on the pavement.

  14. My partner just spotted a black garter snake in South Nanaimo. We live in a new subdivision where there is a creek and underground springs. We also have lots of rock and trees. I wish she would have told me I would have taken a photo of it. We also have the normal stripped garter snakes. Lots of them. Big and small. The smallest would have been the size of a dew worm.

    • Pat Bumstead

      You are not the first person to report black garter snakes in Nanaimo. Melanism (recessive black genes) seems to be associated with moist areas, as opposed to the garter snakes in southern Alberta. They will be loving the creek and springs, so it’s no wonder you have so many. A photo of a black garter snake would be great if you ever get one!

      • Jebadiah

        I managed to get a photo of a black snake in my back garden. I live in south Nanaimo. Do you still want a photo of the snake. I need your email as i don’t know how to submit the photo on this blog. Any ideas?

  15. For all of you wishing you had more snakes feel free to come to my farm and take what you want! I don’t like them but I tolerate them. I guess it is just the startle factor I dislike and the fear that if I don’t keep up with house maintenance that my basement will become a winter den (I have an old farm house). I live in Saskatchewan near a lot of water. The snakes tend to be attracted to my riding mower and some I don’t see in time to stop. When I first moved here I thought they were suicidal! I never had snakes around growing up (in another part of SK).

  16. I saw a yellow and black striped snake with a red tongue and red diamonds on its back in my banana plant about 16 inches long is this a garter snake too?

  17. Are there snakes In fort mcmurray ab ?

    • Pat Bumstead

      Yes, there are likely red-sided (wandering) garter snakes in Fort Mac. These small, harmless snakes can be found all the way north to the NWT border. There are no other snake species in northern Alberta.

  18. where does garter snake commonly live, do they easily found in cambridge,ontario . I have ravine lot and i see them time to time. when they come out ? ,,,, when it is quite hot or during rain

    • Pat Bumstead

      Garter snakes like to live in thick vegetation close to water bodies. I’m sure they can be found in Cambridge, as they live in almost all of Canada south of the tree line.

  19. Andrew Norman

    I’m a South African that was on holiday on Vancouver Island, where I saw a black garter snake. I was surprised, because at home we get a very similar snake that we call a skaapsteker, but they are the striped and brown in colour.

  20. southern Manitoba what length will they grow to

    • Pat Bumstead

      Records show garter snakes as being 22-54 inches but most are in the 30-35 inch range. An older snake may reach 54 inches, which I would very much like to see!

  21. I live on an acreage near Prince Albert SK, and we often see garter snakes; either in the yard, or sunning themselves at the edges of our gravel road. We have lots of mice and voles, frogs at the nearby dugout/marshy area, and plenty of Richardson ground squirrels (though am not sure whether they could manage something that big! Or could they?)
    I picked up a shed skin that measured approx. 36″ by my garden, where I suspect some have been sheltering, as 2 big ones came zipping out today as I was digging around the edges. One came back and we spent a few minutes of mutual curiosity watching each other. He was quite handsome in his shiny new skin with the vivid yellow stripes!
    How old would you say one that large could be?

    • Pat Bumstead

      I am very envious of all your garter snake neighbors! 36″ is a pretty good size for a plains garter snake but they can be up to 43″. The record for longevity for these guys is 8.5 years, but other than that I couldn’t say how old your snake is. I doubt they could manage a Richardson’s ground squirrel but they would bring in the hawks, which also eat garter snakes when they can catch them. You have a whole web of life happening there!

  22. Betsy Rothwell

    I have a pair of garter snakes in my country property. They make full use of the property, and normally I wouldn’t mind but I’m having a wedding here soon. How can I relocate them??

    • Pat Bumstead

      Garter snakes will certainly be in hiding with all the intrusion of humans and activity for the wedding. Where would you locate them to? If they live on the property they likely have a den they retreat to for safety, and will be well out of the way.

  23. John Ostrander

    I see garter snakes on and under my dock near Haliburton ON.They have to swim about 6 m to get there.I also have a lot of dock spiders.Could the snakes be feeding on large slightly venomous dock spiders?I hope so.
    John

    • Pat Bumstead

      I’m sure the garter snakes will be chowing down on whatever is available, so if you have a lot of the spiders I would guess yes.

  24. I have a garter snake in my compost bin and it seems happy there. I took it out once but it came back again so it can stay there if it wants.

    Tom

    • Pat Bumstead

      They love the heat, and the mice and bugs attracted to your compost. Perfect garter snake habitat!

  25. Delores J. Smock

    Just found one in my basement surrounded by my 2 young cats. I got them out cos Im sure the poor thing was terrorised…they hadnt harmed it thankfully cos it had apparently recently eaten a mouse. I would love to see more of these snakes around..they are welcome to eat mice here anytime! Keeping the cats out of the basement now I know its hunting down there…:D

    • Pat Bumstead

      Good for you! I would love to have one of these handy little snakes living in my house.

  26. Sabine Almstrom

    I also have a least one garter snake in my composter, in Duncan BC. We love having the snakes in the garden and have created some dry overwintering habitat for them, but having read that they eat mainly earthworms and slugs, I’m worried about the earthworms that naturally migrate into the compost from the soil below. Will the snakes clean out the population of earthworms in the composter?
    Grateful for your tips!
    Please also send a reply to my email address. Thanks!

    • Pat Bumstead

      Well now, that’s a good question, and one we haven’t received before. I would guess if the snakes can reach them the answer would be yes, as garter snakes eat anything that moves. On the other hand, garter snakes are not burrowers so if the worms are coming up from the bottom of a full composter, they would not be able to reach them. Sorry for the ambiguous answer, but that’s the best I can come up with!

  27. Lesley Currie

    I love to have these snakes in my garden and have seen several plus a discarded skin this summer. I am sure I have to thank them for slug free hostas and dahlias. What can I do to ensure they can over-winter in peace?

    • Pat Bumstead

      If you have garter snakes in your garden (lucky you) they will likely have a den site nearby, but not necessarily in your yard. They go underground into burrows or deep in a pile of boulders for the winter. I’m not sure there is anything you can do to assist their winter hibernation, but it sounds like your garden has plumped them up for the cold season!

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