(Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)
Eastern Garter Snakes are probably the most common and most recognized snake on the East Coast, and certainly in the Northeast. They are often mistakenly called “Garden” or “Gardener” snakes because people find them in their gardens. The true name Garter comes from a time when men would wear garters on their calves to hold up their socks, and the checkered pattern Garter Snakes exhibit was a popular design for these garters. Eastern Garter Snakes are slender snakes that vary in colour from black to a dark olive green, they are often brown in colour as well. They have three longitudinal stripes of cream to yellow colouration, one down the dorsal column, and one on each side. Their underbellies are usually a white or cream colour, sometimes slightly yellow.
In New Jersey, Eastern Garter Snakes have a statewide distribution, though they are uncommon in the Pine Barrens of South Jersey. Their range extends north into southern Ontario, south to Florida and west to eastern Texas. There are colour differences and pending subspecies classifications in different parts of their range. The Common Garter Snake is Thamniophis sirtalis, with various subspecies throughout their range.
Just as their colour and appearance can vary, so can their habitats, they are generally found within close proximity to water, particularly in marshy areas, but they also inhabit woodland forests and are very common in wood piles.
Eastern Garter Snakes generally stay under 30” in length, though some large specimens can reach 3’. Males are typically smaller than females, averaging 18-24.”
These snakes tend to be flighty and even a bit nippy when they are first caught, but adapt to captivity quite well and will usually calm down with time.
A healthy Garter Snake can, with proper husbandry, live 10-15 years.
Setup is simple, with a clean dry substrate such as aspen bedding, cypress mulch, Repti-Bark, paper towels, or newspaper. A hiding area such as a piece of bark, or a store bought or self made hide box is a must, as is a fairly large water bowl, as they often like to swim and soak.
In the wild Garter Snakes will eat a variety of cold blooded prey including worms, fish, salamanders, small frogs, slugs, etc. They will also eat small rodents. In captivity they do well on a rodent diet. Babies should be started on garden worms and minnows or guppies, rat tails, or pinky parts can also be offered. ***Do not feed trout worms, also called red wigglers, they are toxic and will kill your snake***
Daytime temps should be around 75, with night time temps in the high 60’s or low 70’s, these snakes are very cold tolerant, and do not need additional heat if you do not have central air. They are basking snakes so if you do need additional heat an overhead low wattage heat lamp will do nicely.
As their vast range would indicate, this species is not particularly humidity-sensitive. Somewhere between 40 and 70% humidity will do fine, the water bowl will add plenty of humidity and no additional spraying is necessary.
A 15 gallon enclosure can easily house even the largest Garter Snake, the males can easily be housed in a 10 gallon. Sterilite or Rubbermaid sweater boxes will also do nicely, I recommend the ones with the locking lids. I set up sweater boxes with 1/8” holes drilled in the sides. The young are notorious escape artists so my personal favorite enclosure is a Chinese food dish with the sealing lid with tiny (1/16”) holes drilled in the sides, but they can be housed in sterilite shoe boxes as well.
Garter Snakes breed in the Spring after a hibernation period. Breeding happens fairly readily when a male is introduced to a female, a cooling period between November and February is recommended to induce breeding activity. Stop feeding about two weeks before cooling, then cool the tanks to about 50, any temperature above freezing is fine, they are very cold tolerant. A garage or attic that stays above freezing is a fine place to brumate your Eastern Garters. After mating separate the male and female, cannibalism isn’t common, but a large female may ingest her mate if left together too long. After a 4-6 month gestation period, she will give birth to 7-15 baby snakes that look very much like their parents. The young should be housed separately.
(Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)