Snakes are fascinating creatures because they can travel far.
They also have a wide range; despite being legless and dependent on their environment for their physiological thermoregulation, they can be found all over the world, except Antarctica and a few small island nations.
But how far do garter snakes travel? How far will you need to take them to ensure that they do not come back? Do snakes return to the same place? We will answer these questions in this article.
Garter snakes travel as far as 20 miles or 32 kilometers. This is their farthest recorded travel to a winter hibernation den. Then in summer, they return to their feeding areas where they were born. Studies suggest that they use pheromone cues and various homing mechanisms to find their dens and birthplace.
Garter snakes have been found to be capable of going to their hibernation and breeding area and back to their summer feeding habitats.
Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that if you take them away, they will be able to return to the same place you found them. They have the ability to navigate and find their way across long distances.
We will explore their biology and ecology to find out more about their natural behavior and capabilities.
Navigational abilities of garter snakes
Aside from keelback snakes and garter snakes, prior to any scientific research finding evidence to the contrary, we can tentatively expect at least some other snake species to have a good homing ability and return back home.
Scientists have long known that baby salmon can somehow recognize the water and the characteristics of the streams from where they hatched, because they go back to this same stream after many years when it is time for them to breed.
Marine turtles, which can migrate to long distances across the oceans, also have the ability to find their way back home, going back to the very same beach from where they hatched.
Scientists believe that these turtles have a geo-magnetic sense, which they use to navigate vast distances successfully. They can return home even if they do not have the capacity for correcting ocean current deflection.
Scientists found that keelback snakes can also find their way back to their hatching site.
Even if these snakes wander far and wide during their first two years of life, the females can still locate their actual birthplace once the time to reproduce and lay their eggs comes.
And since garter snakes have been found to be able to leave and return to their winter hibernation dens each year in Canada, we know for sure that they also have a good navigational sense.
They have been found to have the capacity to return back to their summer feeding areas every year as well.
We can therefore safely conclude that if you take a garter snake to a faraway place in the hopes that it will not return, you can be sure that it can come back if the distance is 20 miles (or 32 kilometers) at most.
We do not discount the possibility that their homing ability is only restricted to their summer feeding areas and winter hibernation and breeding habitats.
It is, however, safe to assume that their homing ability may work even in other places.
Many studies suggest that snakes use various homing mechanisms as well as pheromones to find their way even with large distances.
It is therefore highly probable that even if you take a garter snake far away from its home – for 20 miles or less – it will be able to find its way back.
Distribution of garter snakes
Now it is time for us to explore how garter snakes live, where they are found, and how they behave.
This will give us a deeper understanding of how they navigate their environment and why and how they can do the things they do.
The common garter snake is only found in the Nearctic region, occurring in much of North America. They are mostly absent in the arid regions of the southwestern US.
Garter snakes can be found in the entire eastern region of North America from the coast of Quebec up to Florida; southward going into the southern California area east from the Sierras; westward going to British Columbia; and all throughout the southwestern areas that are less arid.
Meanwhile, northern Mexico and New Mexico’s mountain ranges harbor isolated populations of New Mexico garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis dorsalis).
They can be found south to the Gulf of Mexico.
Garter snake habitat requirements
The common garter snake has a very widespread distribution due to its high adaptability and capacity to survive and withstand environmental extremes.
Garter snakes can be found in many habitats, such as marshes, meadows, hillsides, and woodlands.
They usually prefer grassy and moist environments and are usually found near the water, near the edges of lakes, ponds, streams, and ditches.
They are also commonly found in urban and suburban locations where there is plenty of natural and artificial cover, such as boards, debris, vegetation, rocks, and logs.
In particular, common garter snakes are found in these habitats:
- Temperate zones
- Terrestrial biomes like forests, grasslands, and savannahs
- Wetlands such as swamps and marshes
- Agricultural, suburban, and riparian habitats
Garter snake reproductive behavior
Garter snakes start to mate during spring, immediately after emerging from their hibernation. Male garter snakes are the first to emerge, waiting for the emergence of the females.
Once the females exit the den, the males then surround them and emit pheromones to attract them. The females then choose their mates and copulate.
Afterwards, they return to their summer habitats in order to feed and look for suitable birthing areas.
Meanwhile, the males continue to stay in the hibernation area and mate with more females who are still available. The mating system of garter snakes is called polygynandrous or promiscuous.
Female garter snakes can store the sperm of the male until they need it. They thus have the option of not mating if they cannot find the right partner.
The common garter snake is a live bearer; they are known to be ovoviviparous (ovo = egg; viva = live, parous = birth).
The young inside the female’s body are incubated at the area of the lower abdomen roughly halfway along the body of the parent.
The young are gestated for two to three months, and the females, at least in the northern populations, can give birth young numbering four up to 80.
Birth occurs from late July to October, and the size of the litter is dependent on the female’s body size. Larger females usually have more young.
Once they are born, the young garter snakes are immediately independent and look for food on their own. And once they are adults, it is their turn to go to the hibernation dens once autumn comes.
How garter snakes locate their dens and birthplace
The question that we should ask now is: How can these new adults find their traditional garter snake hibernation dens, when they have never been there before and are going there for the first time?
According to a study conducted in adult garter snakes of the species Thamnophis sirtalis, at least 75% of the studied garter snake individuals showed some inclination in following conspecific pheromone scent trails.
The study showed that it is possible that pheromone cues are used by both female and male garter snakes in locating traditional winter hibernation dens in their yearly migration in autumn.
It agreed with other studies that suggested that pheromones are used together with other various homing mechanisms to locate these dens.
They also showed that pheromones have a larger and more important role for younger snakes and for snake populations inhabiting more northern habitats.
Are garter snakes beneficial or harmful to humans?
For quite a long time, it was thought that garter snakes were not venomous. Now, it has been discovered that they have a neurotoxic venom, although it is not harmful to humans and cannot kill a person. Its venom is only meant to slow down its prey’s movement while the snake consumes it.
Garter snakes are carnivorous and can eat anything that they can subdue. Fortunately for us, their diet includes many insect and mammal pests in gardens and homes.
They consume slugs, snails, leeches, crickets, worms, fish, grasshoppers, crayfish, frogs, small mammals such as rats and mice, other snakes, and birds.
They are therefore very beneficial to humans and are not harmful to us. If ever a circumstance arises where they will bite, which is rare, the worst that could happen is a little minor swelling on the bite site.
It is therefore useful to have garter snakes in your garden and not relocate them to other places.
What does a garter snake look like?
Most species of garter snakes have three distinct longitudinal stripes on their body. There is one at its back and one each on both of its lower sides. Most species have greenish or yellowish stripes which vary according to region and species.
Meanwhile, some species possess intricate patterns of splotches between stripes which result in a checkered-like appearance. And finally, some garter snake species can be completely stripeless.
Their size ranges from 23 to 30 inches (or 58 to 76 centimeters). The largest specimens have been known to reach five feet (or 1.5 meters) in length.
Many garter snakes have slender bodies, while others are moderately stout. Their scales are keeled, with a ridge down their center. They also have tongues with two colors.
Knowing how garter snakes look like will help you identify these harmless, beneficial animals from other venomous snake species.
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