Wild Profile: Meet the garter snake

A head shot of a garter snake in the grass By Paul Tessier/Shutterstock

The garter snake is probably one of Canada’s most successful reptiles. Why? Unlike other snake species, they haven’t been quite so maligned or persecuted. But more importantly, they’re adaptable, more so than other snakes. They’re “generalists”: they hunt anywhere and eat anything. And they’re good at hiding. That horizontal black-and-yellow colour pattern blends in well with grass and leaf litter. Garters can sneak up on prey while also staying camouflaged and safe from predators.

Garter snakes keep their numbers up by breeding twice a year, in April and October. In spring and fall, the snakes are still gathered in their winter hibernation chambers. Hey, this calls for an orgy! Snakes entwine for hours—picture a writhing, slithering, knot of them. (Or don’t.) Females then have the ability to store sperm, and use it to fertilize eggs up to five years later!

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Baby snakes are born live, usually at the end of the summer. They grow quickly, frequently shedding their clear, scaly skin. Even as adults, garter snakes still grow, but slowly. Females are bigger than males, up to 75 cm long.

Like all snakes, garters are near-sighted, and have a poor sense of taste. They can smell though—by flicking out their forked tongues. The tongue picks up particles in the air, or from anything it touches. The snake then flicks its forked tips to the roof of its mouth, where there’s a gland called the Jacobson’s organ. This sensory organ transmits info to the snake’s brain, and identifies the odour. Who needs a nose?

A garter snake’s other not-so-secret weapon? They’re very sensitive to vibration, and, because of that, can tell if another animal—frog, earthworm, insect—is small enough to be eaten. That’s why they’ll eagerly take on a mouse or a bird egg, but will slither away from people. Garter snakes have expandable jaws, sure…but we’re still way, way too big. No thank you!

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