Species Profile: Checkered Garter Snake

The Checkered garter snake is a subspecies version of the common garter snake. The Checkered garter is a bit different in its coloring, but its habits and needs are the same as the common garter snake.

Many people have no problem picking up these snakes, playing with them, or even taking pictures with them. Not many are frightened by these little creatures. The goal of this post is to help you get to know this “harmless” type of garter snake. You can impress your family and friends with all the great knowledge you have. We’ve done the research for you to make it as easy as possible to get to know them.

Physical Appearance

A Checkered garter snake is a greenish snake with a black-checkered pattern traveling all along its back.  It grows to an average of 28 inches in length. It can be larger, up to about 42 inches, but will generally be closer to 28 inches. Because the Checkered garter’s teeth are so small, many believe they do not have teeth. This is an incorrect assumption.

It grows to an average of 28 inches in length. It can be larger, up to about 42 inches, but will generally be closer to 28 inches. , This is an incorrect assumption.

Checkered garters have a lot of teeth. They are mostly used for consuming their prey. It makes it easier for them to push their meal down their throat, and to get things moving forward. They are very small snakes with thin, slender bodies. They have “keeled” scales (scales which are ‘ridged’) all the way down their bodies.

Some of these Checkered garters even have tongues that are two different colors. It’s not the only species of garters which have tongues with two different colors. Many of the other species will have this characteristic as well.

Behavior and Defense

Here’s the point where we send all your fears away and let you get to know these snakes. Checkered garters are docile. They can start out as aggressive if you are trying to pick them up, or if they feel threatened.

Even then, they pose little threat. Checkered garters are the most easily tamed of their species. If done correctly, they can be tamed within a few days of being caught or purchased.

When I was younger, I remember seeing these snakes often in the yard. I was afraid of them at first because I’d learned my whole life to be afraid of snakes. I come from a small town in Utah. This may not mean much to you, but Utah has a lot of rattlesnakes.

When you see a snake, the first thing you want to do is run. This is an accepted and normal reaction, I’ll have you know.  (The cause of most snake deaths in the USA are caused by the Diamondback rattlesnake.) In this case, it was a garter snake and my mom told me it was harmless.

I remember being confused and in wonder at the idea that there even existed a snake that was harmless. I mean, the shows I watched as a child didn’t give good examples of the realities of snakes. Indiana Jones wasn’t a good teacher on how to feel about snakes for example. If you are like me, hopefully, this post will shed a more positive light on at least this species of snake.

Because they are so docile, you may wonder how the poor creature would even be able to defend itself. The Checkered garter does have some defense mechanisms.

First of all, the Checkered garter is small. Its size allows it to fit into small spaces when avoiding predators. It also is more quick because it has less body weight to pull.

Checkered garters will also release a foul-smelling liquid onto its attackers to discourage handling (for humans) or consumption (for predators). Not only that, Checkered garters will strike and bite. They are fast, and their bite, while harmless to humans, can paralyze small creatures.

All garter snakes possess a mild amount of venom. In the past, they were thought to be harmless. In recent years, it , they possess mild venom which is carried through their saliva. Their bite cannot kill a human, but it will still hurt.

Mating and Reproduction

Most mating and reproduction happens at the end, or sometimes after winter. When snakes go through hibernation, this is called brumation.

They generally go through brumation in large groups. A brumation spot in Canada once had about 8,000 snakes brumating together. Some snakes will travel hundreds of miles just to join other brumation groups. (I have no idea why they call it brumation instead of hibernation like the rest of the world.)

In the early spring, the male and female snakes come out to mate. Many males will try to mate with a single female. Some male Checkered garters will even trick the others into thinking that they are a female by releasing pheromones. This will draw that male away from the female, giving the previous male a chance to mate with the female before any others get to her.

If Checkered garters are in a warmer climate, then they will not brumate (hibernate) and will rely more on the pheromones.

Female garter snakes give birth to live young. Something interesting about the female is that she can “store” the sperm until she is ready for it to fertilize her eggs. She gets to decide when and where she’ll get pregnant. It’s like a snakes version of birth control. She kind of has a lot of power there. It’s rather unique.

The gestation period will last about two to three months once the eggs have been fertilized. Once the time is up, the female will give birth to live young and leave them to fend for themselves. Checkered garters do not raise their young. As babies, Checkered garters are naturally equipped with the know-how to survive on their own. They pretty much go about the rest of their lives on pure instinct.

Checkered Garter Snake Shedding

Something you may not have known about the checkered garter snakes is that when it is born, it immediately sheds. They shed five to ten days after they are born and that is when they begin eating. Shedding happens in checkered garters as they grow. The bigger they get, the more room they need in their skin. Shedding is one method they use as they age and grow.

In their whole lifetime, checkered garter snakes will shed a few times a year. If they are healthy, their shedding will take a little more than a week. Not only do they shed for growing purposes, but they also shed to get rid of unwanted parasites which attach to their skin. Shedding is a way for checkered garters to make a fresh start.

How often they shed their skin also depends on how old the checkered garter is. If they are a younger snake they may shed their skin every two weeks. If they are getting older, they will shed their skin as little as two times a year. This makes sense. As they age, they aren’t growing anymore, so there is no need for them to shed.

Dietary Habits

Unlike other snakes, one of a Checkered garter’s main elements of their diet is aquatic creatures. Most snakes, if they eat too much fish, will get sick. Checkered garters are not one of those snakes. Checkered garters have the ability to eat rodents, but they usually stick to fish, earthworms, insects, and amphibians. They don’t usually go outside that range of their diet.

Because of their highly concentrated diet of watery creatures, they usually tend to stick around water sources. Some people mistake this as an indication that they are water snakes. Checkered garters are not water snakes. Some species of these snakes can swim, and they are excellent swimmers, but they do not live in the water.

One of the advantages of being small is the ability to catch these quick aquatic creatures. It is the reason their diet is filled primarily with these aquatic dwellers.

If your pet is domesticated, you can buy pinky mice or snake food online. It isn’t too expensive, and there are several recommended brands that are pretty cheap and easy to obtain. 

In this article we recently wrote, you can find out more about what garter snakes eat, along with how to properly and successfully feed them.

Climate and Environment Requirements

To give you a better overview of what is an ideal environment for a Checkered garter, I’d like to explain its natural habitat. Checkered garters are endemic to the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Central America. As mentioned before, Checkered garters like to live in more wet areas. They can be found near mossy banks, meadows, woodlands, and grassy knolls.

If you are thinking of having a Checkered garter as a pet, they don’t need a terrarium which is half water. It is easy to think that they would need one because of their desire to be near water. However, so long as you provide them with water to drink and the aquatic creatures it is accustomed to eating, they don’t need to be near water.

Their desire to be near water is more of a preference than an actual need. It’s like when you’re at an event, you choose to sit near the food so you can get there before anyone else. It’s not necessary, but it sure is convenient and nice.

What Kinds of Predators Do They Face?

The kind of predators you will see preying on Checkered garter snakes are hawks, crows, snapping turtles, raccoons, otters, other snake species, etc. This snake has a lot of predators who want it as a nice breakfast.

Checkered garters have good defense mechanisms. Don’t forget about its mildly venomous saliva, foul-smelling musk, speed, and quick striking ability.  Another way this snake wards off predators would be their morphing ability (referring to evolution). They adapt through time and there are morphs of this snake which come out of it.

How these snakes approach predatory situations varies because of its hereditary instincts. Some snakes will slither away quickly, while others will stay and fight their attacker. It has even been shown that male Checkered garters will usually be the one to run away.

Another contributing factor to how these snakes approach their predator is whether they have eaten or not. If their stomachs are empty, it will be easier for them to run away. If they have just eaten, they are heavier and they can’t go as fast. They can endure more of a fight when their stomachs are full, and they are faster with an empty stomach. 

Is It Illegal to Keep a Checkered Garter?

It is not illegal to own a Checkered garter snake. That being said, it is illegal to take a snake out of its natural habitat. Depending on what state you are in, this law can vary. For instance, in some states it is legal to keep poisonous snakes as pets so long as you do not feed said snakes other snakes.

It’s all a rather complicated sort of rules. It is illegal to keep snakes from their natural home. If you really want a garter snake as a pet and you have a lot nearby, it can be tempting to just take it home and keep it. Don’t! We don’t want any laws to be broken. I know they are irresistably cute, but you must resist the urge to keep it.

It is illegal to take a snake out of its natural habitat.

The best method for obtaining any kind of garter snake would be to just buy one online. Checkered garter snakes and other garters are very common and not that difficult to obtain legally. To stay out of trouble and in good standing with the law, please purchase any snakes you wish to have as pets online!

Also, if you are looking for a great guide to taking care of a garter that you have legally bought online, click here. 

How do I Get Rid of Checkered Garters?

If these last sections did not give you any indication of how you might get rid of Checkered garters if they are overrunning your yard, then this section will cover that.

First off, you are not overrun if it is mating season. Most snakes emerge more during mating season and are more of a problem. Some people think that they have too many in their yard during spring, but it’s often just the result of mating season.

Secondly, Checkered garters are harmless and they actually eat bugs and insects in your garden. It is even referred to as a garden snake in some places, and most people just leave it alone.

If you really do have a problem, there are some snake traps you can buy which will help catch them. If they are in your house, that’s a different story entirely. You need to block up any holes or tiny areas they may have slipped through. You can also call pest control and let them take care of it. Professionals are good at what they do and can get rid of the problem quickly.

You can also jut pick them up and throw them out. They’re harmless and won’t hurt you. You could probably even keep them as a pet and sell them if you’ve got enough. (Just kidding, don’t do that, it’s illegal.) Are the garter snakes underneath your deck? In this article, we also give ideas for how to get garter snakes out from under your deck.

Related Questions…

What kinds of snakes eat checkered garters? It may be odd to think that snakes eat snakes, but snake cannibalism is actually common. Checkered garters don’t eat each other, but they are eaten by the Kingsnake. (The Kingsnake is named for its ability to eat other snakes.) The Coral snake is a cousin of the King and will also eat Checkered garters.

Are checkered garter snakes safe around children? Checkered garter snakes are safe to have around children. They are one of the most docile and friendly snakes you can have as a pet. In fact, it can be a good starter pet for little children because of how safe they are.

Have people ever died from being bitten by a garter snake? The fatality rate is next to nothing. However, there are cases of allergic reactions and infection because someone bitten is either allergic or didn’t get themselves taken care after a bite. Any and all snakes bites should be treated. (Whether venomous or non-venomous, it does not matter.)

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