Ribbon snakes are members of the garter snake group (Thamnophis). Telling the difference between the ribbon snake and the common eastern garter snake is very difficult because they look very similar.
Some of the main things experts look out for when trying to distinguish between ribbon snakes and the common eastern garter snake include the body size and the shape of the head.
Most garter snakes species have a ‘stockier’ body as well as a wider head than the ribbon snakes species which are thinner and have narrower heads.
Some garter snakes have recently been found to be venomous, but their venom is very low toxicity. Their bite does not cause serious issues; the venom is not considered to be significantly toxic to humans.
The species of garter snake colloquially called ribbon snakes (Thamnophis saurita) are not known to be venomous and do not bite unless provoked.
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 harmed. Consult your local wildlife authority for the right advice for your situation and locality.
Ribbon Snake Overview
Ribbon snakes are slender and range from 41-71 cm in length. They are characterized by three light stripes.
The primary stripes are yellow, with two running on both sides of the snake’s skin and one down the center of its back. There is usually a dark background against the yellow stripes.
Located between the belly and the yellow side stripes is a brown side stripe. Based on the ribbon snake’s appearance, they can be easily mistaken with the eastern garter snake. However, ribbon snakes are more slender than garter snakes, with unpatterned lip scales. They have a white upper lip and a mahogany-colored head.
Additionally, their side’s stripes are found on scale rows 3 and 4. Ribbon snakes also have a plain yellowish belly with keeled scales. They are mainly found in Georgia and South Carolina. The eastern ribbon snakes are located across the eastern United States, but not in the Appalachian Mountains. However, you can also find them in Florida.
They prefer to stay near the shoreline because they feed on small fish and amphibians. Therefore, just like the garter snakes, ribbon snakes do not eat warm-blooded prey.
For hunting, they use their senses, including auditory and visual perception.
Garter Snakes Overview
The general snake family called garter snakes are small snakes that usually range between 58 and 76 cm in length. However, some garter snakes can grow to a length of up to 150 cm. Garter snakes’ bodies can be described as slender to moderately stout.
They are categorized by three yellow longitudinal stripes, one on each side of the body and the other on its back. Additionally, their side’s stripes are found on scale rows 2 and 3. It has a dark body, yellow upper lip, and olive green head. The body is not clearly marked.
These snakes also have light yellow or white bellies.
However, there are several species of garter snakes, and each species vary in body color. For example, some species have a checkered body pattern with lights and grayish or reddish body color. Other species, especially those found in the southern part of Florida and Georgia, are bluish in background coloration.
Fun Fact: Male garters have longer and thicker tails than female garters.
Garter snakes are commonly found across the Southeast and North America. They prefer to reside in meadows, marshes, woodlands, and hillsides.
Many garter snakes have a preference to live near water as this is close to their primary food sources. Garter snakes prey on amphibians, earthworms, and fish. They do not feed on warm-blooded prey.
Fun Fact: Garter snakes are not constrictors, but they kill their prey using their very powerful jaws.
Comparison between Ribbon Snakes and Garter Snakes
The ribbon snakes are prevalent throughout the northeastern region of the United States. However, you cannot find ribbon snakes in the southeastern parts of Canada and the Appalachian Mountains. Nevertheless, they are many as you approach the coastal areas, but few are in the mountains.
Ribbons are populous in the coastal region because they are semi-aquatic and, thus, prefer to live in the wetlands, around the corners of bogs, lakes, streams, and salt marshes. Nonetheless, they can comfortably live on either land or water. During winters, ribbon snakes usually assume the state of hibernation and hide in dens.
Eastern garter snakes are found throughout the southeast and northern parts of the United States
Ribbon snakes are plenty near coastal areas, but garter snakes more generally are plentiful in grassy environments, woodlands, and hillsides around America.
It is not common to find ribbon snakes in suburban areas, but other species of garter snakes are commonly found in these areas hiding in debris, rocks, boards, logs, or vegetation.
Garter snakes are commonly referred to as generalists because they can inhabit several habitats. In particular, there have been citing of garter snakes in Alaska where no other snake species originates.
2. Behavioral Characteristics
Ribbon snakes are semiaquatic; thus, they spend most of their time around water sources where most of their prey are found.
When they are not hunting, they can be seen basking along the shorelines on logs and rocks. Ribbon can also climb; therefore, you can find them resting on bushes and trees. They are usually solitary reptiles, but during hibernation, they can hibernate alone or in groups.
Ribbon snakes usually hibernate during winter for those located in cold regions. However, those found in warm areas remain active throughout the year. They typically hibernate in burrows, underground, ant mounds, or underwater.
They have great auditory senses that make them highly sensitive to vibrations and have excellent vision. Regardless of that, they are easy prey to birds and bigger amphibians and reptiles.
Ribbon snakes are not aggressive reptiles unless highly provoked. When threatened, their first line of defense is to use their body color to camouflage and merge with the surroundings. Additionally, they can flee into the thickets and coil up to get as low as possible to the ground. In other instances, they usually go underwater.
Ribbon snakes also release a foul smell through their anal glands to scare away predators. To detect danger from afar, they use their tongues to collect chemicals in the air and the surrounding. This information is fed to an organ in the roof of the mouth that interprets it to make a conclusion.
Similar to the ribbon snakes, eastern garter snakes can move extremely fast to escape any threat. Therefore, when provoked, they usually run and hide into the shrubs or in water. However, they can bite, and have recently found to be venomous, despite low toxicity.
Although the bites can be painful, they are not dangerous because their venom is not toxic to humans. It is important to note that not all garter snakes are venomous.
Similar to the ribbon snakes, most garter snake species also release a bad-smelling musk to scare away predators. Some of the garter snake’s predators include hawks, bullfrogs, foxes, raccoons, and snapping turtles.
Garter snakes are active during the day, and during winter, they usually go into hibernation. Those found in the south remain active throughout the year, as is the case with ribbon snakes. Although most people prefer to keep garter snakes at a constant temperature while in captivity, they can sometimes decline food during cold months.
Garter snakes are not solitary reptiles, and during winter, most garter snake species hibernate in dens in large groups. They can be hundreds of them in a single den. The species called ribbon snakes, however, mainly prefer to hibernate alone.
Both the ribbon snake and other garter snakes have a similar diet.
Additionally, they do not kill their prey through constriction but by the use of powerful jaws. Some species of garter snakes als0 have venom that can kill small prey.
Nonetheless, the diet of ribbon snakes includes amphibians such as small fishes, tadpoles, small birds, insects, salamanders, frogs, and toads. However, female eastern ribbon snakes have been found to eat their offspring after giving birth.
Ribbon snakes usually hunt during the early morning and early evening. They do not tear, bite, or constrict their prey but use their powerful jaws to swallow them alive.
While in the wild, garter snakes are opportunistic eaters and can feed on a variety of prey. Most of their diet consists of small fish and earthworms, but they also hunt small rodents, small birds, and amphibians.
They are known to catch fast-moving prey, and they immobilize them using their sharp teeth. Some species of the garter snakes have mild neurotoxins on their saliva that cause paralysis on small prey, making them easy to swallow.
Ribbon snakes usually mate with multiple partners during a single mating season. The mating season for ribbon snakes occurs during the fall.
However, females have the ability to delay fertilization, and, thus reproduction takes place after they emerge from hibernation in spring. They are ovoviviparous, meaning that they give birth. They are usually born in summer in a litter of between 4 and 27 young ones per female.
The young are born fully developed, and, hence, they do not receive any maternal care. They attain reproduction maturity between the ages of 2 and 3 years. In captivity, they have a lifespan of 10 years.
Unlike the ribbon snakes, most species of garter snakes usually mate after hibernation during spring and in the fall. However, in regions where they do not hibernate, mating season is dependent on pheromones. The female garter snake usually releases pheromones to attract males.
Fun Fact: To wade of competition, some male garter snakes usually release female pheromones to attract other males towards them. After diverting their attention, the male then goes back to the female to try to mate.
All garter snakes, including ribbon snakes, are ovoviviparous. Additionally, female garter snakes can store male sperm until they want to fertilize them. They usually give birth to between 20 and 40 live young snakes.
Young garter snakes are born fully developed; thus, they do not receive maternal care. The life span of a garter snake in the wild ranges from 4 to 5 years. However, under captivity, they can live for up to 10 years.
5. Which Snake Make The Best Pet?
Both the ribbon snake and the garter snake make excellent pets.
Both have a similar lifespan under captivity of around 10 years. Furthermore, they are harmless to humans, although ribbon snakes tend to be less aggressive than most other garter snakes.
Additionally, these snakes are not expensive to maintain, primarily due to their small size and simple dietary requirements.
Nevertheless, they require daily care and maintenance for signs of disease such as mites or unusual behavior. They should be provided with fresh water frequently and any waste removed from the den.
More Snake Comparisons:
Ribbon snakes are a type of garter snake. So, there aren’t too many differences between the two. For the most part, ribbon snakes are simply small versions of garter snakes that people like to keep because they’re considered to be cute snake pets.
Joe is a freelance writer for FaunaFacts. Joe has written extensively about snakes for the site, but also contributes content about a range of animals.