On my weekly trail run today, I spotted three garter snakes basking along the side of the path. Each was about 12-16 inches in length and had the familiar yellow stripes running the length of their black bodies. I stopped when I saw the first one because I wanted to see if it was alive (i.e. poke at it with a stick). It was, but quite lethargic as it awaited the sun’s rays to heat up its cold blood to a sufficient temperature.
The common garter snake, found widely across North America, is a diurnal snake – which means it is most active in the morning and late afternoon in summer and warm afternoons in cooler seasons or climates. Frankly, I was surprised they were out this early and in such numbers that I spotted three inside of 20 minutes. At this age, they’re usually about a thick around in the middle as a Sharpie permanent pen.
I learned that in the early part of spring when snakes are coming out of hibernation, the males generally emerge first to be ready when the females wake up. Some males will even assume the role of a female and lure other males away from the burrow with a fake female pheromone. After such a male has led rivals away, he “turns” back into a male and races back to the den, just as the females emerge. He is then the first to mate with all the females he can catch.
It’s important to note that garter snakes are typically not poisonous to humans, or even dangerous for that matter. Most will quickly slither out of sight at first contact with an animal larger than itself. They eat mostly amphibians and earthworms and their venom has a toxin that is deadly to those creatures. However at most in a human, it may cause slight irritation or itching at the bite site.
So be careful where you step when you’re out in the woods as the days become nicer. These little creatures are fun to have around, especially because they pose no real danger and, when spotted, can be used as a teaching moment for young children. After all, who knows where the next great herpetologist will come from?