How To Identify Garter Snakes in Pictures

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picture of the Giant Garter Snake, Thamnophis gigas, part of the how to identify garter snakes guide

Garter snakes (genus Thamnophis) inhabit backyards and multiple grass habitats throughout North America. Their propensity to inhabit residential areas explains the common name, garden snake, the snakes recognized for their thin and often colorfully striped bodies.

Depending on the source, up to sixteen different garter snake species are recognized. Apart from the species with unusual field markings, multiple, similar looking species, occupy overlapping territory in many areas, creating potential identification challenges.

That particular identification problem does not apply to the Giant Garter Snake (Thamnophis gigas) pictured at the top of this page. Growing up to five feet in length, it ranks as the largest garter snake and one of the longest native snakes regardless of family.

The remainder of this article provides pictures and information to start the garter snake identification process. Please press the green snakes button at the top for further information on the many other common kinds of snakes in the United States.

close-up of a common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)
Garter snake identification can be a fun activity because they are not aggressive snakes and taking the time to look at one means little personal harm to the observer. Their body color can range from blue, prominent in Florida blue garter snakes, to the many shades of red visible in West Coast species.

The Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) in the picture is a rather bland looking species and easy to identify basically because it’s the primary species in most East Coast states.

close-up of a common garter snake
It’s also the most wide ranging of all the garter snakes and found in almost all of the lower 48 states.

Identification problems pop up in states where multiple species exist, especially because the Common Garter takes on so many different appearances. The second picture shows a close up of a Common Garter Snake with numbers from 1-7 printed on the upper labial scales. That physical characteristic is usually, but not always sufficient to differentiate it from other species.

close-up of a Thamnophis elegans and the eight upper labial scales
Compare the Common Garter with the snake in the next picture, the Terrestrial Gartersnake (Thamnophis elegans). The picture shows a snake with eight upper labial scales.

picture of an Aquatic Garter Snake Thamnophis atratus-atrastas
Aquatic Garter Snakes (Thamnophis atratus atrastas) are a Western specialty with a presence in California and Oregon.

picture of a Butler's Garter snake, credit FD Richards, Flickr
Butler’s Gartersnake (Thamnophis butleri) has a small range, limited to Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio.

Like all garter snakes, they have stripes down the body. Unlike most garter snakes they have a very pronounced checkered pattern complimenting the stripes. It’s hard to misidentify them.

picture of a Checkered Garter snake, credit Jay Phagan, Flickr
Most of the sixteen garter snake species are recorded in Southwest and Western states. Checkered Garter snakes are mostly a Texas species. However there are smaller populations in California, Arizona and New Mexico.

Like all garter snakes, they have stripes down the body. Unlike most garter snakes they have a very pronounced checkered pattern complimenting the stripes. It’s hard to misidentify them.

picture of a Black-necked Garter snake
The black-necked gartersnake (Thamnophis cyrtopsis) is typically described as a Southwest species. Their range extends from Texas to California along the border. Some neighboring states such as Oklahoma and Ut ah.

Subspecies have slight color differences. The presence of the black color on the neck unites them.

picture of a Northwestern Garter snake
The Northwestern Gartersnake (Thamnophis ordinoides) is another West Coast specialty with a presence in Washington, Oregon and California. The red stripe down the middle of the body.

picture of a wandering garter snake, Thamnophis elegans
Three different subspecies of the Western Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans) inhabit western North America.

The picture shows a typical wandering garter snake skin pattern, characterized by the light color stripes. A close up picture would show the snake’s eight upper labial scales, typical of all Thamnophis elegans subspecies.

close-up of a valley garter snake
The Valley Garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis fitchi), one of a handful of T. sirtalis subspecies, shows a light cream or white color on the lower jaw, followed sometimes with a red spot on the neck.

Without seeing the lower portion of the jaw, the Valley garter might be mistaken for other dark headed garter snakes.

picture of a Gulf Coast Ribbon Snake
Ribbon snakes refers to a group of snakes in the genus Thamnophis, differentiated by the presence of longer tails and a light patch in front of the eye.

Two ribbon snakes, the Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus) and the Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus) inhabit North America, each with geographically identified subspecies. The picture shows a Gulf Coast Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus orarius), one of the six different subspecies of the Western Ribbon Snake.

picture of an Eastern Ribbon snake
Ribbon snakes refers to a group of snakes in the genus Thamnophis, differentiated by the presence of longer tails and a light patch in front of the eye. Eastern Ribbon Snakes (Thamnophis sauritus) share those same physical features.

The Eastern Ribbon Snake has a distinct pattern on the body as well as the common stripes.