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Plains garter snakes are long, striped garter snakes, usually from 40 to 70 cm long, but occasionally up to 109.5 cm. They have a dorsal and two lateral, yellow or orange stripes on a background scale color of dark brown to dark greenish. Lateral stripes are on scale rows 3 and 4. The sides may have some red pigmentation. Scales are keeled and measure 19 to 21 rows at the widest part of the body. There is a row of black spots between the lateral stripes and the scales on their belly. Males are slightly larger, with slightly longer tails.
Plains garter snakes are found throughout the North American plains region, from the Oklahoma panhandle, northernmost Texas, and northeastern New Mexico north to southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and east through Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Indiana.
Plains garter snakes are found in meadows, prairies, and other grasslands near sources of water, such as ponds, streams, marshes, and sloughs. They may also be found in swampy areas or along rivers. They may be found in suburban or urban vacant lots. Where they are found along with their close relative common garter snakes, they may be found in more dry habitats. This is because common garter snakes out-compete plains garter snakes for the more moist habitats.
Plains garter snakes grow approximately 1.1 cm per week during their first year, after which growth slows.
Males find females by using scent trails left by the females. Both males and females can mate with multiple individuals.
Plains garter snakes breed once yearly.
Plains garter snakes breed in April or May.
5 to 60; avg. 15
83 to 102 days
2 to 3 years
Mating takes place after these snakes emerge from hibernation, in April or May. Plains garter snakes give birth to live young from June through September, after a gestation period of 83 to 102 days. There are from 5 to 60 young in a litter, but usually 10 to 20.
Females give birth to live young. After the young are born, they do not need the help of either parent.
A captive plains garter snake was recorded living to almost 8 1/2 years.
Plains garter snakes are active from March to November, depending on the region. They may be active for shorter periods in northern portions of their range. They hibernate in burrows or rock crevices, although they may emerge on warm, winter days. They often hibernate in rodent burrows or ant mounts, but have also been found in crayfish burrows, under sidewalks, in other man made crevices, and even underwater. They are active during the day at warm temperatures, usually between 21 and 29 degrees Celsius. Once the air temperature goes above 31 degrees Celsius, these garter snakes switch their active period to night time. At much lower temperatures, prairie garter snakes become inactive. These snakes are solitary.
Plains garter snakes stay within relatively small home ranges for long periods of time, moving only up to 76 meters over periods of over a year.
Plains garter snakes use their sense of smell mostly. They find prey, mates, and hibernation sites by following scent trails. They also use vision and vibrations to help find their way around, avoid predators, and find prey.
Plains garter snakes eat a wide variety of animal prey. The diet of plains garter snakes and common garter snakes is very similar, so they probably compete for prey where they are found in the same area. They eat frogs and toads, salamanders, fish, birds, small rodents, leeches, earthworms, and grasshoppers. Amphibians eaten include northern cricket frogs, American toads, great plains toads, tree frogs, striped chorus frogs, plains leopard frogs, northern leopard frogs, and various salamanders. They also eat mosquitofish, southern redbelly dace, bluntnose minnows, bank swallows, and eastern meadowlarks. Plains garter snakes find prey by following scent trails, then grabbing prey once they catch up with them.
Plains garter snakes may be preyed on by birds of prey, such as red-shouldered hawks, Swainson's hawks, kestrels, and northern harriers. Other predators include foxes, coyotes, striped skunks, mink, domestic cats, and milk snakes. Humans also sometimes kill prairie garter snakes. These garter snakes will bite, emit a foul smell, or defecate to discourage predators. Their lateral stripes make them difficult to see in their grassy habitats and as they move. Plains garter snakes also have a series of antipredator displays that they will use, including hiding their heads, striking with the mouth closed or open, coiling or balling up their bodies, extending the body flat, and waving the tail.
Plains garter snakes are important predators of amphibians, earthworms, leeches, and other animals in their prairie habitats.
There are no adverse effects of plains garter snakes on humans. These are nonvenomous snakes that are shy and retiring, in general, although they will bite if threatened.
Plains garter snakes are important members of the native prairie habitats they are found in.
Plains garter snakes are not considered threatened, although regional populations may be vulnerable. They are considered endangered in Ohio and a species of concern in Arkansas.
George Hammond, University of Michigan
Tanya Dewey, University of Michigan
Ernst, C., E. Ernst. 2003. Snakes of the United States and Canada. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.
Harding, J. 2000. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.