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Tag Archives: garter snakes and their relatives

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Garter Snakes, Part 3 – Unique Temperature and Light Concerns

Please see Parts I and II of this article for additional information on garter snake husbandry and natural history.  Today I’ll cover some often over-looked aspects of garter snake care that may help to explain why these relatively hardy snakes, and the related ribbon and water snakes, often fail to live as long as might be expected in captivity.

Thermal Gradient

Garter SnakeA thermal gradient (varying temperatures within the terrarium) is beneficial to nearly all reptiles, but seems particularly important in maintaining the health of captive garter snakes.  This is especially true for Butler’s Garter Snakes (T. butleri), Common Garter Snakes (T. sirtalis) and others that range into the northern half of the USA.

Depending upon the species in question, garter, ribbon and water snakes do best at an ambient temperature of 72-82 F, with a warmer basking site (90-95 F) and a drop to 68 F or so at night.  Northern species should ideally be subjected to a winter cooling-off period, even if breeding is not contemplated.

UVA Light

There is some evidence that garter and related snakes (as well as Rough and Smooth Green Snakes, Opheodrys aestivus and O. vernalis), may benefit from exposure to UVA light.

A ZooMed Repti Halogen Bulb should be provided during their normal daytime cycle.  Even if not strictly necessary for survival, UVA encourages natural behavior, reproduction and, possibly, a strong immune system.

UVB Light

While snakes have not been shown to require UVB light exposure, anecdotal reports from successful garter and water snake keepers lead me to believe that these snakes may differ from most in this regard.

The Zoo Med 2.0 fluorescent lamp is specifically designed for animals needing moderate amounts of UVB light, and may be a prudent addition to the garter snake terrarium.  This bulb also supports vigorous plant growth…in contrast to most snake species, garter and ribbon snakes are very well-suited for terrariums housing sturdy live plants.

Further Reading

Laboratory guidelines concerning the importance of thermal gradients and related aspects of reptile care are posted here.

Next time we’ll cover nutrition and the care of individual garter snake species.


Keeping Garter and Related Snakes – Part 2 – Avoiding Skin Infections

Please see Part I of this article for background information on these snake-keepers’ favorites.  Garter Snakes and the closely related ribbon and water snakes usually make hardy captives, yet there are very few records of individuals surviving over 10 years.  I believe this may have to do with some of their unique environmental and dietary needs (I’ll cover temperature, light and diet in Part III of this article).

Natural vs. Captive Habitats

Nearly all garter and ribbon snakes favor swamps, wet meadows, pond edges and other moist habitats.  Oddly, however, they are very susceptible to skin infections (“blister disease”) when kept on damp substrates – even more so than snakes native to dry environments.  This holds true even for those that spend a great deal of time in the water, such as the Aquatic Garter Snake (Thamnophis couchi), the Ribbon Snake (T. sauritus) and the True Water Snakes (Nerodia sp.).

While all should be given water in which to soak, the substrate must remain dry.  The aforementioned species may be kept in semi-aquatic terrariums that allow for swimming, but they must have access to warm, dry basking sites (branches over water work well).  Shy specimens that will not bask should be moved into terrestrial situations with just a bowl of water available.

Curing Blister Disease

A Northern Water Snake (Nerodia  sipedon) that I kept decades ago developed skin blisters after only 2 weeks of a largely aquatic existence.  I wrote to famed reptile man Wayne King, then curator of reptiles at the Bronx Zoo.  His advice to move the animal to a dry terrarium and provide a warm but sheltered basking site worked like a charm, and the snake’s skin condition cleared within 10 days.

Further Reading

An excellent article on the unique Aquatic Garter Snake, including habitat photos, is posted here.


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