Eastern Black-Necked Garter Snake
(Thamnophis cyrtopsis ocellatus)

Thanks to G.M., Austin, Texas, for sending in these photos

Garter snakes  and ribbon snakes have three, narrow, light-colored stripes on a dark-colored body. The spinal stripe of the typical Eastern Black-Necked garter snake is uniformly orange to orange-yellow throughout its length, but is interrupted by a distinctive, large black blotch behind the head. The lateral stripes are pale-yellow or off-white in color, and occupy the 2nd and 3rd scale rows above the belly plates. Except for the stripes, the body is composed of dark spots on an olive-green or yellowish trunk; these dark spots form at first a single row, then toward the tail two rows, between the lateral stripes and the spinal stripe. These dark spots encroach upon their adjacent stripes just enough to impart a wavy appearance to the latter. Smaller dark spots between the lateral stripes and the belly accentuate the wavy effect. All of these distinctive features are evident in the photos shown on this page.

The crown of T. cyrtopsis ocellatus is gray, sometimes with a bluish cast, and is typically unmarked except for  prominent vertical black streaks along the margins of its pale-colored upper lip scales. Two especially prominent vertical streaks are behind, two smaller streaks are below, and three diminutive streaks are forward of the eye. Look for these upper lip markings; they, along with the three lengthwise stripes, are easily discerned from a distance, and are distinctive identifiers for garter snakes. Ribbon snakes (members of the same genus) have three lengthwise stripes on their bodies but lack the upper lip markings. 

The Eastern Black-Necked garter snake is found throughout the Edwards Plateau, despite the arid character of that region. It survives that hostile environment by taking advantage of the numerous streams and springs that erupt from the region's vast underground aquifers. Besides Texas, Thamnophis c. ocellatus is also found in New Mexico, Arizona, and much of Mexico (except along the arid gulf coast lowlands). 

Adults grow to 16-20 inches on average, and one as long as 43 inches has been reported. The specimen shown here was estimated by the photographer to be about three feet long. It is a mild-mannered snake that rarely bites, and its non-poisonous bite would have dubious value as a means of defense. It reportedly flattens its head and the forward portion of its body to frighten predators away, but this, too, is relatively ineffectual for defense. When handled, it releases a decidedly unpleasant smelling musk from its scent glands and, simultaneously, discharges the contents of its cloaca on its handler. These latter mechanisms tend to produce its immediate release from captivity.

The diet of this reptile consists of frogs, toads, and their tadpoles. Lacking the enormous adrenals needed to deal with toad toxins, these are eaten only sparingly. The adrenal glands possessed by garter snakes are considered intermediate in size, making them large enough to handle an occasional toad, but not large enough to permit a steady diet of them without causing serious systemic injury.

Breeding occurs from April to May, which produces litters of 7-25 young born from late June through August. The babies are brightly colored and measure 7-11 inches. 

I want to thank G. M., of Austin, who forwarded these excellent photos to bugsinthenews.com on November 16, 2003. Below is the text of her message:

"(This) beautiful, colorful snake (was found) in my yard. I was trying to set up for a bbq later today when I very nearly stepped on this gorgeous creature. It's gone now; I was excited, but it was probably unhappy with being observed.

Here are the best shots of it. My hand was a bit shaky while I took the pictures from what I hoped was a reasonable distance, so many were too blurry to be interesting.

My home backs up to an LCRA easement, so I see all sorts of critters: turtles, roadrunners, deer, etc. But this one was the most gorgeous one of all.

--G.M., Austin, Texas

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