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Maritime Garter Snake

Thamhophis sirtalis pallidula Allen

If you have ever seen a large brown snake, it was probably a Maritime Garter Snake. Their colour can vary a lot, from brown to grey or yellowish, with lighter stripe or row of spots along the sides. The striped pattern on these snakes looks like the pattern on garters once worn by men, to hold up their socks. A few are just about all black. Garters are widespread in Nova Scotia, including some of the larger coastal islands such as Big and Little Tancook off Mahone Bay, and Georges Island in Halifax Harbour. They are our largest snake species.

Garter Snakes come out of winter hibernation in April. They are common near pond and lake shores, as well as woodlands, rocky roadsides, farmlands, gravel pits and abandoned buildings. Daytime is their active period. You may see the same snake each sunny day basking in a warm spot. Garters are excellent swimmers too, moving over the surface of the water with an undulating motion. Some people call them water snakes. they eat a variety of small animals such as salamanders, fishes, frogs, worms and mice.

The babies are born alive in late summer, from 6 - 40 in a family. Baby Garter Snakes are greenish-grey, with no visible markings, and about 10cm long. They look like smooth gray worms with eyeballs. Garter Snakes have teeth (but no fangs or poison), and do tend to bite you when first picked up. The bite is more surprising that it is painful - just a small puncture. They also produce a smelly fluid intended to make you let them go.

Additional Facts and Details

The genus Thamnophis ranges from coast to coast, and from the southern North West Territories to Costa Rica. The Eastern Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis, is a complex of seven sub-species, represented in the Maritime Provinces by the Maritime Garter Snake.

Garter snakes and Ribbon Snakes are closely related to the Water Snakes.

How big do they get? Here are some actual measurements:

  • Newborn babies (139 snakes were measured) - 13.4 to 19 cm
  • Adult males (51 snakes measured) - 39.6 to 60.2 cm
  • Adult females (99 snakes measured) - 39.8 to 91.7 cm

The earliest record of a Garter Snake emerging from its winter hibernation in Nova Scotia is April 16, in 1975, when one adult male was seen sunning on a flat rock at Colpton, Lunenburg County.

The latest record for a snake seen here in the fall before hibernation is October 29, in 1935, from East Roman Valley, Guysborough County.

Because they are frequently seen, Garter Snakes account for just about all the exaggerated snake stories from Nova Scotia.

In 1973, 15 adult females were captured inside a tarpaper fishing shack at West Branch Economy River, Colchester County. They were stretched out, two on the floor, five on the bottom bunk, two on the top bunk, five on the woodpile, and one on a shelf, possibly taking advantage of the warm inside temperature for embryo development.

Maritime Garter Snakes have been seen swimming in fresh water lakes 100 metres or more from shore. They will also swim in salt water.

There seems to be a tendency for Garter Snakes to become numerous on offshore islands. There are dense populations on the islands of Halifax Harbour, and the Tancook Islands.

These snakes produce from 6 to 40 young each year of pregnancy. The young are born alive (no eggs laid) from early August to about mid-September.

Garter snakes eat lots of small animals. For young snakes, earthworms and Red-backed Salamanders are the big food items. Adult snakes eat small fish, salamanders, toads, frogs. One female examined had eaten a small bird. On Little Tancook Island, research suggests these snakes are the most important predator of meadow voles.

George's Island, located in Halifax Harbour is home to a dense population of Garter Snakes. Some are melanistic. When these snakes lack the usual pigments, they look black. Even the belly and eye scales can be black. In the 1980's John Gilhen of the Museum staff investigated a population of melanistic Garter snakes on George's Island in Halifax Harbour.

Snake Species

Maritime Garter Snake

Eastern Smooth Green Snake

Northern Redbelly Snake

Northern Ringneck Snake

Northern Ribbon Snake

See Also

More Snake Facts