Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Eastern Gartersnake

     The Eastern Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) is a common, mid-sized snake, usually between 18 - 28 inches long, though the record length is 49 inches. It is normally found near water, but is extremely adaptable as to habitat, including being tolerant of people and disturbance. This makes encounters with them not uncommon.
     Gartersnakes are variable, but generally have stripes and some dark checkering to them. They look similar to their close cousins, Common Ribbonsnakes (Thamnophis sauritus) who are more slender, more closely tied to water, and have a white spot in front of their eyes. Gartersnakes not only lack this white spot, but are thicker and their lip scales are light colored, but separated from one another by dark vertical lines that border each scale's edges. 

Common Ribbonsnake, note the white spot in front of its eye.

Eastern Gartersnake, note the dark stripes between the scales on their jaws. 

     Gartersnakes are some of our most cold tolerant snakes, often active when it's too cold for other snakes to be out. They are among the last snakes to go find dens and overwinter in a dormant state. Their diet consists of various small creatures: amphibians, occasional rodents, invertebrates, but their favorites are earthworms and fish. They don't like to climb trees, but are certainly capable of doing so if the need arises.
     In late summer, they give live birth to 9-85 young, with the larger snakes producing the most offspring. If they're lucky, they can live up to 14 years. When encountered, they may either try to hide at first or flee (their stripes causing them to be lost very quickly in the underbrush). If cornered or if they feel threatened, they will put on quite the show. They often flatten their heads and puff out, trying to appear as big and bad as they can. They are capable of biting, but their teeth are small, so the bite is not very painful at all. Occasionally some people have a slight reaction to the saliva, causing a mild itch, but this is very uncommon. 
     Here's a short video of one giving a defensive display: 

     I'm always more worried about getting musked. Many snakes are capable of exuding a very foul, smelly substance that most creatures find unpleasant. It doesn't wash off very easily as well. Since they sometimes defecate on you as well, it is always best to leave them alone. Because I occasionally have to remove them from harms way and people, I have unfortunately been the recipient many times.
     Eastern Gartersnakes are quite the survivors. Their adaptability in habitat, weather conditions, and diet allows them to be one of the most commonly encountered of our snakes. Perhaps it is fitting then that as of February of 2016, they were declared Virginia's official State Snake. 

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