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Meet the Garter Snakes – Beautiful, Interesting and Hardy – Part 1

Garter Snakes (Thamnophis ssp.) have long introduced aspiring herpetologists to snake-keeping and remain popular today.  A number of North America’s 30+ species are regularly available in the pet trade, and they remain the most commonly encountered free-living snakes in most areas.  Although often thought of as “beginner’s snakes”, I maintain that garters possess a unique combination of characteristics that render them fascinating additions to any private or public collection…they certainly have been a source of many of my most interesting observations.


Garter SnakeGarter Snakes of one or another species range from southern Canada to Central America, and reach their greatest diversity in the United States.

Those best suited to captivity are classified in the genus Thamnophis.  Along with ribbon and water snakes, this genus is placed within the subfamily Natricinae and the family Colubridae.


Frogs, tadpoles, earthworms, salamanders, fishes and insects comprise the diets of most species.  Several are immune to the virulent skin toxins of amphibians such as California newts, which have caused human fatalities when ingested, and toxin-protected American toads are the primary food of plains garter snakes (T. radix) and others.  Some, such as the giant garter snake (T. couchi gigs), take rodents on occasion.

Attractive Attributes

A preference for fishes and earthworms, and a willingness to accept nonliving food items (garters sometimes consume road-killed frogs) greatly simplifies garter snake husbandry, and suits them well to those who prefer not to keep rodent-eating snakes.

All bear live young and, when properly maintained, are likely to breed.  Although wild-caught snakes will bite and release musk when handled, they tame down readily…the most frequently kept species, the common garter snake (T. sirtalis), is especially docile.

Eliciting Natural Behavior

What I especially favor about garter snakes is that they can be kept in planted, naturalistic terrariums – a difficult prospect where most other snakes are concerned.

When kept so they reveal a great many of their natural behaviors – far more than is the case for large snakes maintained in bare enclosures.  A pair of garter snakes in a terrarium stocked with plants, branches, hideaways and a pool will provide you with insights into snake behavior that are not easy to come by otherwise.

A Wide Spectrum of Colors

While not subject to the intensive captive breeding efforts applied to other species, garter snakes are being kept by several breeders interested in developing unique color morphs.  Already, some spectacular results have been achieved, and more can be expected.

This is not to say that selective breeding is necessary where garter snake colors are involved.  All are interestingly marked, and a great many species sport bright colors.  In fact, a subspecies of the common garter, known as the San Francisco garter snake (T. sirtalis tetrataenia), is one of the most beautiful snakes to be found anywhere.  Unfortunately, it is highly endangered and may not be kept in the USA, but by all means try to see it in zoo collection if possible.

Individual variation among animals of the same species is the rule when it comes to garter snakes, so all sorts of interesting surprises await those who seek out these most fascinating reptiles.

Further Reading

Please see my article Keeping Snakes in Naturalistic Terrariums for some ideas concerning planted habitats for garter snakes.


Texas Garter Snake image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Dawson


  1. avatar

    Hello Mr. Indiviglio,
    Your Reptile Blog keeps me coming back to ThatPetPlace and I have saved a lot of money on fish food and other supplies. I loved Carl Kauffeld’s books, and the opportunity to discuss reptiles with you is an honor. I hope ThatPetPlace continues your blog for years to come. I had a similar experience as you with a Northern Water Snake 30 years ago. I kept it in a naturalistic, watery environment. He developed sores, then escaped, and when a tank of tadpoles started disappearing, I found him lounging over the tadpole tank in the middle of the night. I released him right away. Nowadays, those little metal clips that hold on the screen tops are the greatest thing! Your blog is a great contribution to the proper care of reptiles and amphibians. My Red-ear Sliders, Russian Tortoises, Central American Wood Turtle, Anoles, Fire-belly toads, Tiger Salamanders, Corn Snake, and Ball Python (all housed separately, of course) have all benefited from your blog and other Internet sources. Thank you, DJ

    • avatar

      Hello Dennis, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to write in with our kind words…they are especially appreciated because of your obvious interest and experience. Great to be in touch with someone who appreciates the books which have come to be classics in our field.

      I recently had the opportunity to work on the re-design he Staten Island Zoo’s reptile house, Carl Kauffeld’s former stomping ground; included is a re-creation of is office, complete with his books, files, artifacts and so on. Please be in touch if you are ever in the area and would like to visit.

      Yes, the metal clips have changed things for the better – I recall seeing the lids of king cobra tanks held down with bricks in reptile dealer’s facilities (which also served as their family’s home in some cases!).

      Snakes always seem to find food sources when they escape, as with your water snake. Escapees at the Bronx Zoo nearly always wound up in the rodent holding room. A red-tailed ratsnake that made its way into a huge bird exhibit was re-captured 18 months later, on his way towards a bulbul nest…he had added about 2 feet to his length during his time out. But I guess the most entertaining story I heard on that topic involved an octopus held in a research lab – it left it’s aquarium each night, hunted crabs in nearby tanks (crossing a few feet of concrete in the process, and was always back in its tank, and within it’s cave, by morning – really amazing!

      Look forward to your future comments…thanks again for being in touch,

      I also appreciate your use of our products…please feel free to pass along any assessments or questions you might have.


      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar


    I have a question, is something I been thinking about for long time. Has anybody ever done DNA test to see if the Lake Erie Melanistic garter snake has anything in common with a butlers garter snake. because the head shape the size of the eyes even the length of the body all very similar, just wondering what are your thoughts.


    • avatar

      Hell Steve,

      Interesting idea, but I’ve not read anything on point. The Lake Erie population is classified as the Eastern Garter Snake, T. sirtalis. They can likely hybridize with Butler’s, as is true for most others within the genus, but I’m not sure if any work has been done re their relationship. Best, Frank

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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