Valley Garter Snake

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While on my visit to California I found a couple examples of this “lifer” reptile that is a subspecies of the Common Garter Snake.

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This snake is seldom found far from permanent water where it resides in riparian habitat along streams and floodplains and around ponds and marshy areas. I found my specimens in a flooded ditch.

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Valley Garter Snakes are active during the daytime and usually found from April through September. They eat a range of food items, including fish, frogs, mice, earthworms, slugs and leeches.

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Like most Garter Snakes native to the United States, the Valley Garter Snake it is brown to black with three yellow stripes: One stripe down the back and one on each side.

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Valley Garter Snakes breed in the spring, soon after emerging from hibernation. Females typically give birth to 5 to 40 live young in July or August. The young are 7 to 8 inches in length at birth.

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This species is the most frequently encountered snake in most parts of its range and adapts well to human modification of the landscape. Despite being common and having wide range, I was thrilled to come across them in the wild.

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Diablo Range Garter Snake

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This is a neat reptile that occasionally find when visiting California (the only place where it lives). It belongs to a species atratus, often called the “aquatic garter snakes.”

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Since there are no water snakes native to the Golden State, these fill the ecological niche that water snakes would otherwise occupy. This serpent is often found along waterways and when threatened, it usually escapes into the water, hiding on the bottom.

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Like many other garter snakes, it has three yellow stripes on a dark background. I tend to find it found on the edges of brushlands, woodlands, grasslands, and forests near ponds, marshes, streams and lakes.

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The Diablo Range Garter Snake as an adult tends to be less than three feet long. It is active in the daytime and forages for prey near water sources. It mainly eats frogs, tadpoles and fish.

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Like all North American garter snakes, this species produces live offspring, having about a dozen babies in late Summer or early Fall.

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Plains Garter Snake

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While flipping some debris behind a gas station in Kankakee, Illinois, I came across this “lifer” reptile.

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This snake occurs in grassy areas such as vacant lots, abandoned fields, meadows and pastures. It is not unusual to find them near towns.

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Plains Garter Snakes are native to most of the central United States and range as far north as Canada and as far south as Texas. In my home state of Ohio, we have an isolated population.

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Their diet is similar to that of most other garter snakes; they favor frogs and toads, salamanders, fish, small rodents, leeches and earthworms.

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Like other garters, the Plains Garter Snake features three yellow stripes on a background color of dark brown to dark green. Described as “one of the most cold-tolerant snakes,” on warmer Winter days, it often comes out of hibernation to bask in the sun.

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Though the habitat was unglamorous, while visiting the “Land of Lincoln, it was super cool to find this snake that I’ve never seen in the field before.

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California Red-sided Garter Snake

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This snake is rivaled only by the San Francisco Garter Snake in color, with its bright red and black bars covering the sides of its body and a distinct turquoise or yellowish dorsal stripe. In Marin and some parts of Sonoma County, it is particularly colorful.

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This subspecies of the common garter is found soley in California, traversing almost the entire state’s coastal region. I have often found it along waterways, where it is wary and hard to catch.

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The California Red-sided Garter Snake utilizes a wide variety of other habitats such as forests, mixed woodlands, grassland, chaparral, farmlands; though it is often found near ponds, marshes or streams.

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This serpent eats a wide variety of prey, including amphibians and their larvae, fish, birds and their eggs, small mammals, reptiles, earthworms, slugs and leeches. It is able to eat adult Pacific Newts, which are deadly to most predators.

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The California Red-sided Garter Snake is most active in the daytime. I often see them sunning themselves along hiking trails. In Summer, it is most active in the morning and late afternoon; in the heat of mid-day, it often remains hidden.

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Like all Garter Snakes native to the United States, this is a livebearer. It mates in the late Winter to early Spring and young are born in Summer to early Fall. Newborns are typically 5-8 inches in length and clutch sizes vary from 8 to 20 offspring.

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Coast Garter Snake

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Without a doubt this is the most commonly encountered serpent when I’m on my outings in California. Here’s one of several that I found this week while visiting The Golden State.

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This reptile is highly variable in appearance, with the colors between its yellow stripes brown or olive, with a pattern of dark spots, intermixed with a suffusion of red, orange or rust coloring.

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It inhabits a range of ecosystems and elevations – I have found it at sea level as well as at the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

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Despite its subspecies name terrestris, it is often found near water. Open sections of conifer forests, fields, foothills and along creeks and at the edges of ponds are some of the spots where I’ve found them.

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Reflecting the diversity of habitats frequented by these snakes, a wide variety of foods are eaten, including fish, amphibians, leeches, slugs, earthworms, lizards, snakes, small mammals and birds.

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This snake occurs in a narrow coastal strip from the southern part of California up until southern Oregon; hence the common name “Coast Garter Snake.”

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Like other Garter Snakes in the United States, this species gives birth to live young in mid to late Summer.

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Though commonplace, I enjoy seeing this classic feeding generalist that is adaptable to take advantage of they variety of prey that exists in California’s highly variable climatic conditions.

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Eastern Ribbon Snake

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Although I found a number of Western Ribbon Snakes in Union County, Illinois, it wasn’t until I visited neighboring Johnson County that I found my first Eastern Ribbon Snakes.

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Ribbon snakes are semiaquatic and frequently found along the edges of lakes, bogs and marshes. A swampy area with railroad tracks running through it proved to be an ideal place for them.

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The ribbon snake gets its name from its very thin body. At maturity, it’s usually between 2 to 3 feet in length. It is a slender, dark snake with a yellow stripe down the back and one on each side. Its tail often makes up about one third of its body length.

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The Eastern Ribbon Snake is a member of the garter snake family. Not only do they look similar to garter snakes, they too are widely distributed throughout the United States.

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This species is a good swimmer and can race quickly along solid ground. It also is a good climber and are often found in the small bushes along the water’s edge. This serpent is active and nervous and relies on being wary to escape predators. Their diet consists of frogs, salamanders, toads, small fish and leeches. Like garter snakes, Eastern Ribbon Snakes give birth to live offspring in late Summer.

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Melanistic Eastern Garter Snake

Melanistic Eastern Garter Snake

Eastern Garter Snakes have a very large range, and within that range a number of color and pattern variations occur. Perhaps the most interesting being the version with no color or pattern. In northwest Ohio, populations of all-black snakes can be found along with their standard-looking relatives.

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Melanistic Eastern Garter Snakes are predominantly a deep black. Immediately after shedding their skin they can be extraordinary beautiful. Also, the underside is completely black. I came across several individuals on a recent trip to northwest Ohio, as well as many examples of striped garters, which would be considered typical in appearance.

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Often the chin, lip and some scales on the side of the head, can have their normal color of whitish or brownish. Melanism can be thought of as the opposite of albinism. While albinism is the absence of melanin (a dark colored pigment found in skin), melanism is the overabundance of melanin, leading to an individual with an abnormal amount of black coloration.

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Mutations that lead to melanism can arise randomly in any animal that has melanin; however, mutations that cause melanism and albinism are uncommon. This leads to sporadic occurrences of a color abnormality that randomly occur across multiple populations. For a trait like melanism to sustain itself in a population, being melanistic must benefit the individual in some way (give it an increased chance of survival).

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In the Eastern Garter Snake, being melanistic makes it faster for an individual to warm up while basking in the sun. The color black absorbs light wavelengths efficiently, resulting in the black individual gaining more heat energy than the yellow and brown striped individuals. This give them a competitive edge on the cool Lake Erie shore.

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Santa Cruz Garter Snake

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Being back in California last month allowed me to see my favorite Garter Snake in the wild. This species fills the niche of a Water Snake in the Golden State; it is often found around ponds and creeks.

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The Santa Cruz Garter Snake is only found California and resides in central and southern parts of the state. It has two pattern morphs: one with a single stripe along the back, and a three-striped morph more typical of garter snakes.

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Although they are usually less than three feet long, females can be rather stout-bodied. Its bright yellow (or sometimes orange) dorsal stripe creates a striking contrast with its black body color.

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This is an active and alert species that will seek the shelter of water and plunge to the bottom of a creek or pond and hide when approached.

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It feeds mainly on amphibians including frogs, tadpoles, and aquatic salamander larvae, but small fish are also eaten.

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Like all garter snakes, the Santa Cruz bears live offspring. Broods consist of three to 12 young.

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Butler’s Garter Snake

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While visiting the northwestern part of my home state of Ohio, I came across this cool little serpent. It is named after ornithologist Amos W. Butler of Indiana.

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This reptile only averages 15-20 inches in total length. Like other garter snakes, it features a pattern of dark stripes; unlike other garter snakes found in its range, it has a small, blunt head.

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Butler’s Garter Snakes prefer moist meadows, marshes and lake edges. They subsist on a diet of mainly earthworms, but they may also eat leeches, salamanders and frogs.

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These snakes breed in the spring, soon after emerging from hibernation. They produce live offspring which are born in midsummer. Females typically give birth to eight to 10 young.

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When frightened, these snakes may wriggle rapidly back and forth with little forward motion, creating an image of more towards thrashing in place, rather than to getting away. It was awesome to encounter this reptile, which does not live in my region of the Buckeye State.

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Western Ribbon Snake

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The Western Ribbon Snake is a long, slender garter snake with a striped body and a very long tail, which makes up nearly a third of its total length. It looks like an elongated version of its closest relative, the Common Garter Snake. It features three stripes – the central stripe, running down the spine, ranges from greyish-tan to gold, reddish or orange. They are medium sized snakes, averaging 20 to 30 inches in length.

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The diet of the Western Ribbon Snake consists mainly of amphibians, including frogs, toads and salamanders. It also consumes fish. This reptile is a day-active predator that hunts for its prey largely by sight.

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This reptile is a semiaquatic species and most commonly associated with brushy or grassy areas close to water. It may be found near swamps, marshes, ponds, rivers, streams, lakes or damp meadows. When alarmed, they are just as likely to enter water than take cover on land. Instead of diving, they skirt effortlessly across the top of the water. They also climb well and are sometimes seen in bushes or shrubs close to water.

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Their streamlined shape, bold markings, bright colors and mild disposition make encounters with these slender serpents on the limestone bluffs of Shawnee National Forest enjoyable ones.

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