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Rattlesnake vs. Garter Snake (Behavior, Diet, Habitat)

Rattlesnakes and garter snakes are two entirely different snake species that evolved from lizards. Whereas they may possess similar characteristics, they differ in appearance, size, color, and habits. So, the two can be distinguished easily.

garter snake

Rattlesnakes are large, dense-bodied, and venomous snakes that attack and kill their prey using their potent venom. They feed on small rodents and birds. They can be found in a variety of habitats from the coast to the desert across North and South America.

Garter snakes are slender and small to medium size with a variety of colors. They are non-venomous, but their saliva contains a toxic substance that is harmful to their prey. They are primarily found in Canada and the United States.

Disclaimer: This is information for entertainment and educational purposes only. Do not approach a wild animal and keep your distance. Only professionals should handle wild animals. Seek professional help immediately if you have been bitten or otherwise harmedConsult your local wildlife authority for the right advice for your situation and locality.

Rattlesnake vs Garter Snake

FeatureRattlesnakeGarter Snake
1. Scientific NameCrotalinaeThamnophis
2. Size2 – 6 feet2 – 2.5 feet
3. ColorsRusty and earthy colors spanning from deep brown to gold.Varies. Usually black, brown and yellow.
4. RangeSouthern Canada to Argentina.Throughout North America.
5. Hunting BehaviorAmbush predators. Venomous.Opportunistic hunters with very low toxicity.
6. Breeding SeasonMay to Late July.Spring.
7. Lays EggsNo (Ovoviviparous)No (Ovoviviparous)
8. Pet BehaviorNot recommended as pets.Sometimes skittish.
9. VenomousYesYes, but very low toxicity.
10. Life Expectancy12 to 25 years.2 to 9 years.
11. DietMice, Baby Rats, Frogs.Frogs, earthworms, lizards, slugs, and minnows.

Rattlesnake Overview

Rattlesnakes are pit vipers (a subfamily of venomous vipers). Other snakes that belong to this family include copperheads and cottonmouths.

Among the 45 known rattlesnake species, most are found in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico deserts. This snake can be found in a range of habitats such as deserts, swamps, and meadows.

Rattlesnakes possess strong hinged and hollow fangs that are laid parallel to the jaw when not in use. When they strike, the fangs rotate by muscular contraction and assume an erect position that is almost perpendicular to the jawline.

Baby rattlesnakes are born fully equipped with multiple sets of fangs and venom. These fangs are shed and replaced alternately every two months.

A rattlesnake is among the few animals known to have dual visual and possess sensory organs in their upper jaws that can detect infrared images.

Fascinating enough, this snake can detect the heat from a candle flame placed 30 feet away. Rattlesnakes “taste” the air, the ground, or the water using the tips of their tongues and use the information collected to aid them in locating prey.

Fun Fact: The rattlesnake’s rattle comprises interlinked keratin rings, the same substance that makes up human hair, skin, and nails. The rattle of a rattlesnake can vibrate 60 times per second or more.

Garter Snake Overview

The garter snake is also known as the grass snake or garden snake.

35 known species of garter snakes inhabit various environments, including mountain forests, aquatic areas, and suburban areas. The snake is non-venomous to humans, although its saliva can be mildly toxic to amphibians and other animals.

Garter snakes are commonly found in Canada and Central United States.

They come in different color markings with one to three longitudinal yellow to red lines with checkered patches in between. They usually have three stripes on their backs, one down the center and one on either side.

Their stripes might be blue, green, yellow, or white and span the length of the snake’s body. Some snakes have a distinct stripe pattern on their scales, whereas others have dark spots between the stripes or no pattern.

The common garter snake has a long, slithery body and a dark, distinct head.  They snakes are usually 60 to 80 cm long and have been known to grow up to 135 cm. The snake is slender, and has a small to medium-sized length.

Read More: 7 Snakes That Look Similar to Rattlesnakes

They feed mainly on frogs, insects, and earthworms.

They live 2 years in the wild and 6 to 10 years in captivity and weigh about 150 grams.

Garter snakes that live in colder climates hibernate during the winter. They hibernate in big groups in burrows, with hundreds of garter snakes seen together on occasion. According to the Virtual Nature Trail, more than 8,000 snakes hibernated in one lair in Canada. Garter snakes will travel great distances to hibernate in a communal den.

Fun Fact: The common female garter snake can produce as many as 70 to 80 young ones in a single litter.

Comparison Between Rattlesnake and Garter Snake

1. Behavioral Characteristics

The behavior of rattlesnakes and that of garter snakes is entirely different.

The rattlesnake uses its rattle to warn prospective aggressors or distract prey, while most garter snakes usually run, hide, or produce a foul-smelling musk to scare way aggressors. The rattle is made when the hollow and bony doughnut-like segments in the rattlesnake’s tail smash together.

Fun Fact: Some garter snake subspecies, such as the bull snake, have adopted some behavioral characteristics that mimic rattlesnakes to make them seem scary, such as the rattlesnake’s defensive posture and rattle sound.

2. Mating and Reproduction

The mating and reproduction behavior of these two snakes also dramatically varies.

Male rattlesnakes have sex organs at the base of their tails called hemipenes which are retracted when not in use.  Because females can retain sperm for lengthy periods, reproduction can begin well after breeding season.

The gestation period for rattlesnakes varies per species; however, it can last up to 6 months in some cases.

The number of offspring is also not definite but typically ranges from 5 to 20. Females only spawn every two to three years on average. The newborns do not stay with their mothers for long and are soon sent to fend for themselves.

The common garter snake starts the mating process when it comes out of hibernation in Spring.

The tongue of the common garter snake is used to detect pheromones from possible partners.

Female garter snakes give birth a few months after successfully mating, and each litter can have anywhere from a handful to 80 snakes. Baby garter snakes are from 12.5 to 23 cm in length at birth.

3. Movement

Most rattlesnakes move by rectilinear motion, while the garter snake moves by the serpentine method or lateral undulation (wavy motion).

Rectilinear locomotion (rattlesnakes) is defined as moving in a horizontal line with the belly scales elevated lightly from the ground and drawn forward, then pulled downward and backward.

The cycle repeats after the body has moved far enough forward to stretch the scales. This cycle occurs at multiple sites across the body at the same time.

In lateral undulation (garter snakes), waves of lateral bending are propagated along the body from head to tail.  Garter snakes push off from any rock or other bumpy surface, moving in a wavy motion, and also use this serpentine method of movement in the water. 

4. Venom

Rattlesnakes are highly venomous, while garter snakes have low venom toxicity.

Rattlesnake venom is a deadly saliva composed of a complex blend of enzymes peculiar to pit vipers that damage blood or incapacitate nerves. Nonetheless, the venom’s primary purpose is to help hunt prey and digest food rather than as a defensive mechanism to avoid victims and molestation.

Rattlesnakes’ powerful venom is not always enough to fend off other snakes, many of whom prey on rattlesnakes!

According to Terminix, some garter snake species have enough chemicals in their saliva to be considered poisonous, just not to humans.

While garter snake bites are not lethal, they can cause slight swelling and itching in humans, and some people have experienced allergic reactions in the past, but this is uncommon

5. Diet and Digestion Process

The diet for rattlesnakes and garter snakes is similar and mainly consists of small reptiles, birds, and mammals.

However, they differ in some aspects. For instance, garter snakes are immune to the poisonous secretions produced by some amphibian species such as toads. This gives them more dietary options to choose from.

The digestion process is similar in both snakes. After eating, the stomach secretes gastric fluids and digestive enzymes, which break down the prey. Food enters the small intestine after most of the digestion is accomplished, where more digestive enzymes continue to break down the prey for absorption.

The food travels to the large intestine, where most of the water is reabsorbed. The residual material is then excreted as feces by the snake. The digestive system of these two snakes breaks down nearly everything except keratin-based materials, such as hair, claws, and feathers. 

These indigestible materials are discharged as excrement after passing through the digestive system. These snakes become a little inactive after feeding to focus their energy on the intensive digestion process.

6. Hunting Habits

Rattlesnakes are mostly ambush hunters and tend to wait for their prey to come to them. Garter snakes, on the other hand, utilize both ambush predation and hunting down their prey.

They rely on their excellent sense of smell and vision to track down their victims.

Neither of these snakes are constrictors.

Rattlesnakes overcome their prey by injecting a potent venom and then swallowing them whole.

Garter snakes, on the other hand, kill their prey using two methods. For smaller animals, they use its toxic saliva to immobilize them before devouring them. However, for larger animals, they usually rub them against the ground or squeeze them against a hard fixed object to a point the prey can be swallowed whole.

Both snakes are adapted to hunting during the day and night, although rattlesnakes mostly hunt at night due to their excellent night vision.

7. Habitat

Garter snakes are commonly found in aquatic areas such as ponds and wetlands, while rattlesnakes are commonly found in deserts, plains, and rocky areas.

The aquatic habitat is excellent for garter snakes because they are adept swimmers, and due to their small size, they are often preyed on by hawks, bears, herons, raccoons, and giant toads. For this reason, they are primarily found in wet areas where they run and hide in case of danger.

8. Appearance

Rattlesnakes have keeled scales in various colors and patterns. Most rattlesnake species have black diamonds, rhombuses, or hexagons.

Garter snakes have three light stripes running down the length of their body on a black, brown, gray, or olive background, and their scales are keeled too.

garter snake

Garter snakes have crimson tongues with black tips.  In contrast, a rattlesnake’s tongue is often red at the base, while the tips are black.

In terms of size, rattlesnakes are thick-bodied and longer. Garter snakes tend to have small and slender bodies.

Rattlesnakes have triangular heads, while garter snakes have narrow round heads barely wider than their neck. Lastly, the tail of a garter snake, unlike that of a rattlesnake, comes to a point.

Fun Fact: Young rattlesnakes don’t rattle. Additionally, some adults may misplace their rattles, so keep an eye out for the triangle head.

9. Which One Can You Pet?

Whereas both snakes can be kept as pets, many states require licences to keep rattlesnakes, so it’s rare to see them as pets.Rattlesnakes are not recommended for beginners because of their venomous nature and aggressiveness.

While neither of these snakes makes the list of the top snake pets, a garter snake would make a better pet. Nonetheless, some prohibitions restrict individuals from taking them out of their locales since they are endangered.

Beginner snake handlers would be better off choosing a more common species as a pet snake, such as a kingsnake or milk snake.

Garter snakes make better pets than rattlesnakes because:

  • Their placid demeanor, tiny size, and non-lethal bite make them a better pet for an aspiring herpetologist.
  • They are primarily active during the day.
  • They are good garden pets as they will devour pests that often cause damage to your plants, such as grasshoppers, snails, frogs, small rodents, and worms.

More Snake Comparisons:

Conclusion

It is very easy to distinguish a garter snake from a rattlesnake. Both snakes exhibit different behavioral and physical characteristics. One of the features that sets the two apart is the conspicuous rattle located on the rattlesnake’s tail.

Nonetheless, they do share some common features, such as their diet. Also, if you are not sure which snake species you might be dealing with, never approach it as it might be venomous.