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  • USA Wildlife Removal Education Guide - Garter Snakes: Flexible Foragers

Garter Snakes: Flexible Foragers

It’s a good thing that garter snakes don’t present a threat to humans, since there are so many of them and their population is so widely distributed. In fact, they are excellent allies in controlling the populations of pests like slugs, leeches, lizards, ants, crickets and small rodents and because they are essentially nonpoisonous and docile in captivity, many people regard them as excellent pets.

They have been known to exceed four feet in length but normally stay at two feet or less, weighing in at an average of five- to six ounces. Characteristically, their bodies are lithe and slender, featuring longitudinal stripes of different colors and a range of body hues including green, blue, yellow, gold, red, orange, brown and black.

Garter snakes are a species of natricine snake, which implies that they favor a water-oriented habitat.

They are not as dependent on a water environment as other natricines, and can be found in upland environments as well as near creeks, rivers and swamps. They are diurnal hunters and like all snakes, they are carnivorous, dining on slugs, earthworms, crickets, leeches, lizards, amphibians, minnows, tadpoles and small rodents.

The snakes are generally resistant to the poisons of rival predators such as toads and newts and can actually absorb some of their toxins into their own system, thereby making them poisonous as well. Their levels of toxicity present no threat to humans, but are helpful to the snakes in hunting amphibians and small animals such as mice, as well as deterring potential predators.

Garter snakes usually brumate, rather than actually hibernate during cold weather, allowing them to wake up, hydrate and go back to sleep. On awakening as the weather warms, the females mate with as many as 25 males, after which they leave to find food and a place to gestate and give birth. Gestation last two- to three months, depending on the species, with litter size varying from just a few to a record 98 young. The babies are independent at birth and immediately begin their hunting ways, focusing on smaller prey and broadening their diets as their size permits.

Garter snakes display a variety of antipredator behaviors, such as varying their body morphology, taking threat postures in an attempt to bluff the predator, and actually striking. But given the opportunity, their preferred response is to flee. The can also secrete a foul-smelling fluid from their post-anal glands.

In the wild, the snakes have an average lifespan of about two years, with many dying die in their first year. They commence reproduction in their second year and reach full maturity at three- to four years. But in captivity, with care and the absence of predators, their life span has ranged from six- to 20 years.

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