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13 Mind-Blowing Facts About Thamnophis Scalaris

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The Thamnophis scalaris, commonly known as the common garter snake, is a small harmless colubrid snake that is indigenous to much of North America. Here are 13 fascinating facts about this widespread reptile:

The common garter snake is one of the most familiar snakes in North America. These small, slender snakes have distinctive longitudinal stripes running down the length of their bodies. They are found in a variety of habitats across the continent and feed on amphibians, earthworms, small rodents and more.

While the common garter snake is not venomous, some interesting myths and misconceptions surround this species. Read on to uncover some mind blowing facts about the biology, behavior and history of the Thamnophis scalaris.

Facts About Thamnophis Scalaris

  1. Common garter snakes are remarkably cold tolerant. They have been documented voluntarily exposing themselves to freezing temperatures for extended periods during winter brumation. Their blood contains special glucose-based antifreeze that allows them to survive in below-freezing weather.
  2. They are mildly toxic, but not dangerous to humans. Garter snakes secrete a mild neurotoxin and other substances from their skin into their defensive mucus. Though not potent enough to harm humans, this toxic mucus can occasionally irritate sensitive skin and can deter some predators.
  3. Garter snakes have one of the widest ranges of any reptile in North America. Their extensive distribution covers nearly the entire continent, from as far north as Alaska and Canada to as far south as Florida and Central America. Within this immense range, they occupy an exceptionally diverse array of habitats.
  4. They are among the most aquatic species of snakes. Garter snakes commonly reside close to wetlands, marshes, ponds and streams. They are skilled swimmers and can remain submerged underwater for over 20 minutes at a time to evade predators or search for food.
  5. Common garter snakes are harmless to most garden crops. While they do occasionally feed on earthworms, common garter snakes primarily consume amphibians and small rodents that may be considered garden pests. Their presence around gardens is often beneficial in helping control pest populations.
  6. They are preyed on by a wide assortment of predators. Potential predators of garter snakes range from birds of prey to coyotes to domestic cats and more. Their small size, lack of venom, and only moderately effective defensive tactics make them vulnerable to attack from many species.
  7. Garter snakes employ some bizarre anti-predator behaviors. When threatened, they may flatten their heads to appear more intimidating, release pungent skin secretions, exude blood from their cloaca, or even mimic the characteristic vibrational tail rattling of rattlesnakes.
  8. Common garter snakes are highly adaptable to human disturbance. While many snake species are disappearing due to urbanization and habitat loss, common garter snakes are thriving. They even colonize densely populated cities by exploiting urban green spaces and wetlands.
  9. They were once considered magical creatures. Various Native American tribes revered garter snakes for their perceived supernatural qualities and transformative abilities. Some myths suggested they could cure ailments, bring rain, and instill great fishing and hunting fortune.
  10. Garter snakes exhibit dramatic color variations. Their background color can range from olive green to jet black, while their stripes occur in astonishly bright yellows, oranges, reds and whites. The selective pressures driving this vast color diversity remain a mystery.
  11. Females may be able to reproduce without males. Parthenogenesis, a type of asexual reproduction, has been documented in a few isolated populations of common garter snakes. The females in these groups can produce viable genetic clones of themselves without mating.
  12. They are highly social compared to most snakes. Garter snakes frequently congregate together in large mating balls and communal hibernation sites. Hundreds or even thousands of individuals will occupy the same den to overwinter.
  13. Common garter snakes were involved in groundbreaking genetic research. Studies of color inheritance patterns in laboratory bred garter snakes during the 1940s-60s provided some of the earliest evidence that DNA carries genetic information. This pivotal work set the foundation of modern genetics.


The common garter snake is far more intriguing than its small size and familiarity might suggest. These ubiquitous reptiles showcase an astounding array of biological capabilities and behavioral quirks that scientists are still working to fully understand. Their extreme adaptability to diverse habitats and human encroachment is also facilitating unique research opportunities into urban ecology and evolutionary genetics. Hopefully this overview of some mind blowing garter snake facts has provided a new appreciation for this phenomenal snake species.

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