There are many different species of garter snakes, found all across the United States. The true number of species is difficult to determine because the variation in scale pattern can be slight. While many of these different species share several behaviors and characteristics, there are some that you can tell apart based on their physical characteristics. Keep reading to learn about some species and sub-species of garter snakes

small garter snake

Garter snake characteristics

Before we detail some different types of garter snakes and how to identify them, it’s worth discussing the behavioral characteristics that garter snakes have in common. Garter snakes are usually non-aggressive toward humans.

Garter snakes are often considered to be beneficial to have in gardens, and their common presence has earned the nickname of garden snake. Many garter snakes will feed on other garden pests such as slugs, grasshoppers, frogs, worms, and rats. However, they still might not be pleasant to come upon. Males tend to leave the den first to wait for females. When females eventually emerge, multiple males may form a ball with the lone female creating what is referred to as a “mating ball”. Garter snakes differ from some other types of snakes in that they give live births. And while some of these characteristics can be unpleasant or alarming, garter snakes don’t pose a huge risk to humans unlike other, more venomous snakes such as rattlesnakes.

Different types of garter snakes

Common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)

The  common garter snake  is, as you can probably guess, one of the most common types of garter snakes. It’s the most widely found snake across North America. Often, common garter snakes have three light stripes running down their narrow bodies, many times a yellowish color with darker yellow stripes. Their head is notably larger than their neck. They are important parts of the food chain, preying on others and being prey for animals like raccoons, opossums, and birds. There are 13 subspecies of the common garter snake, four of which are listed below.

Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)

While Eastern garter snakes look similar to the common garter snake, they differ by the color of their stripes. While many common garter snakes have darker stripes, you’ll often see Eastern garter snakes with the reverse: Dark bodies with lighter, yellow stripes. Eastern garter snakes are most common in the Southeast of the United States.

San Francisco garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia)

The San Francisco garter snake has perhaps the most distinct physical appearance of common garter snake species. Like the common garter snake, it is striped. But what makes the San Francisco garter snake so distinct is its black and red stripes covering its body. It also has a bright orangey-red head, and a light turquoise underbelly. The San Francisco garter snake, which is found in areas near San Francisco, is endangered. They feed on frogs so they often live near aquatic habitats.

Texas garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis annectens)

Like the San Francisco garter snake which is found in San Francisco, one of the distinguishing factors of the Texas garter snake is its geographical location. Texas garter snakes are commonly found in central Texas. Many Texas garter snakes are a dark, greenish-black color with one red-orange stripe down their backs, flanked on each side by a yellow stripe.

Ribbon snake (Thamnophis saurita)

Ribbon snakes  are another “common” garter snake species, though they’re not a subspecies of the common garter snake like those above. Ribbon snakes still look very similar to the common garter snake and its subspecies, usually slender and with stripes. Ribbon snakes are similar to other garter snakes, in that if they feel disturbed they can excrete a foul-smelling spray from their anal glands. Ribbon snakes vary from the common garter snake and its subspecies by their glossy scales and their longer tails; in fact, the ribbon snake has a tail that is usually about ⅓ of its total length.

These are just some of the different types of garter snakes that you might encounter. Because there are slight variances in their scale patterns and physical appearances, they can sometimes be difficult to tell apart.