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Garden or Garter Snake?

Garden or Garter Snake?

Thamnophis sirtalis

Yes…I said it….”garden snake”.  I was one of those who thought Common Garter Snake Thamnophis sirtalisthat this species was called a garden snake when I was growing up before I knew better.  However, it seems most people that dislike all snakes in general wrongly misjudge the docile nature of this species; these same people call them “garden” or “gardener” snakes to further support the fact that they are misinformed about this beautiful snake.  Garter snakes should be revered as a garden protector since they almost exclusively eat bugs, which are more detrimental to ones valued flowers/plants.  This species is a perfect example of a biological control for insect nuisances in the garden. I, for one, get excited to find a garter snake making a home in my garden. However, one snake may not be enough to keep all insects at bay from destroying your prized summer gardens.

My grandmother was one such person that fiercely hated snakes, and insisted that the snake in her yard was a garden snake.  I of course asked what species?  She would then tell me to listen better since the species had already been disclosed as a “GARDEN” snake.  My grandmother also loved planting marigolds in her garden beds along the foundation of her cape-style summer cottage, and my grandfather admired her green thumb.  Therefore, he had to obey her orders to discard  any snake immediately upon discovery since she would refuse to return to her garden until the snake had been exiled. In the same breath, my grandmother would also curse the slugs that devoured her precious, softball-sized marigolds.  I tried explaining to her that she was creating an environment where the (also mutant-large) slugs could thrive: a garden filled with marigolds, which had no natural predators (i.e. garter snakes) to the slugs.  Instead, my grandmother spent a sizeable amount of money on salt for the slugs (not in a nice way).


This little common garter snake (pic above), approx. 18″ in length, was well camouflaged alongside Beech Mountain Trail, which is on the “quieter” side of Acadia National Park.  Garter Snakes are extremely common throughout New England and Atlantic Canada, and can often be found in residential gardens; hence the similar-sounding nickname (i.e. misnomer) “garden” snake.  I have also heard of people referring to  black racer snakes (also a very common type of non-venomous colubrid) as garden snakes as well; I suppose any snake found in a residential setting may be incorrectly referred to as a garden snake. Garter snakes vary in color (from black, brown, grey, and/or olive), and some darker phases may make distinguishing marks, such as (typical) three light stripes that run along the length of their body,  imperceptible.  Garter snakes range in size from approximately 1.5′ to 4′ at maturity.  These snakes are usually docile in nature, but be warned that they will protect themselves by releasing a putrid-smelling fluid from their postanal glands.

We were lucky to observe two garter snakes on the side of the Beech Mountain Trail (at Acadia National Park) slithering between the last few patches of snow during spring melt.  These snakes had just emerged from hibernation (most likely), and were trying to soak up the warmth of the sun.  They were still cold to the touch, and much slower in trying to evade our capture.  Snakes, like all reptiles, are endothermic; this means that they must absorb energy/heat from their surroundings.  Therefore, they will sun themselves in the heat of the day, and will retreat within stonewalls (or under rocks), which retain heat.