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northern ribbon snake

Thamnophis sauritus

What do they look like?

Eastern ribbon snakes are slim, striped snakes with long tails relative to their body length. They have three white, yellow, or greenish stripes that run along the length of their body on a background color of black or dark brown. This striped pattern makes them difficult to see in the grassy habitats they prefer. The head is wider than the neck and their relatively large eyes are bordered by a light bar in front. Their belly is white, yellow, or green without blotches. The scales above their mouth are bright white or yellow, without dark borders (as in garter snakes). Their scales are keeled (with a raised ridge along their length). Females are slightly larger than males and total body length ranges from 46 to 86.2 cm. Young eastern ribbon snakes are born alive and are from 16 to 24 cm long. (Harding, 2000)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • Range length
    46.0 to 86.2 cm
    18.11 to 33.94 in

Where do they live?

Eastern ribbon snakes are found throughout much of eastern North America east of the Mississippi River. They occur from southern Maine, across southern Ontario, throughout Michigan, south to eastern Louisiana, throughout the Gulf states, including Florida, and throughout the eastern seaboard. They appear to be largely absent from southern Ohio, southeastern Illinois, central Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and northern Alabama and Georgia. There are isolated populations in parts of Kentucky and Wisconsin. (Harding, 2000)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Eastern ribbon snakes prefer wet meadows and fields, especially near the edges of lakes, ponds, streams, and marshes. They are most often found in open, sunny sites. (Harding, 2000)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • rivers and streams

How do they reproduce?

Mating typically occurs when snakes emerge from hibernation. Males seek out females and attempt to mate with them. (Harding, 2000)

Mating takes place soon after these snakes have emerged from hibernation in the spring, they also sometimes mate in the fall. Live young are born in late summer, litter size ranges from 4 to 27 young, with 12 being average. Young snakes grow rapidly and often become mature before their second year, though some females don't breed until their third year. (Harding, 2000)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Eastern ribbon snakes breed once or twice yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Young are born in late summer, typically.
  • Range number of offspring
    4.0 to 27.0
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1.0 to 3.0 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1.0 to 3.0 years

The young are nurtured inside of their mother's body until they are born. Once they are born there is no further parental care. (Harding, 2000)

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female

How long do they live?

Little is known of eastern ribbon snake lifespan in the wild, they probably live for several years, once they have survived their first year. (Harding, 2000)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    10.6 years

How do they behave?

Eastern ribbon snakes are active and fast-moving snakes. They are usually seen at or near the edge of a body of water, but may also be found in moist meadows away from water. They bask on logs and rocks but also climb into bushes to bask. They are active from April to October and hibernate through the winter in the abandoned burrows of animals such as rodents and crayfish, or in anthills. These snakes are most active during the day and are mainly solitary, though they may share hibernation sites with other snakes. (Harding, 2000)

How do they communicate with each other?

Eastern ribbon snakes communicate with each other primarily through touch and smell. They use their forked tongues to collect chemicals from the air and insert these forks into a special organ in the roof of their mouth, which interprets these chemical signals. Snakes are also sensitive to vibrations and have reasonably good vision.

What do they eat?

Eastern ribbon snakes eat mainly frogs, salamanders, and their larvae. They will also eat small fish, but rarely eat earthworms. They capture prey by stalking or chasing them. (Harding, 2000)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats terrestrial vertebrates
  • Animal Foods
  • amphibians
  • fish
  • terrestrial worms

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Eastern ribbon snakes are eaten by many of the predators that frequent the habitats in which they are found. This includes great blue herons, hawks, mink, and raccoons. Young snakes are vulnerable to large fish and large frogs. They escape predation by being fast and agile, they will readily flee into the water, where they may dive to hide below the surface, or into dense vegetation. When harassed, eastern ribbon snakes will flatten their heads and bite at the attacker. They will also thrash their bodies violently and smear the attacker with a foul-smelling secretion. (Harding, 2000)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Eastern ribbon snakes impact populations of amphibians, their primary prey. They are also an important food source for the animals which prey on them.

Do they cause problems?

There are no negative effects of eastern ribbon snakes on humans. (Harding, 2000)

How do they interact with us?

Eastern ribbon snakes may occasionally eat common garden pests, such as slugs and insect larvae. (Harding, 2000; Harding, 2000)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • controls pest population

Are they endangered?

While eastern ribbon snakes are not currently recognized as threatened, the habitats they prefer are continually threatened by development and contamination. It is important to continue to monitor populations. (Harding, 2000)

Some more information...

There are four subspecies of Thamnophis sauritus: northern ribbon snakes (T. s. septentrionalis, occurring from southern Maine through southern Ontario, Michigan, and northern Ohio and Indiana, with some isolated populations in Wisconsin, eastern ribbon snakes (T. s. sauritus), occurring throughout the eastern seaboard states to the Gulf of Mexico and north along the eastern shores of the Mississippi River, peninsula ribbon snakes (T. s. sackenii), in Florida and southern Georgia, and bluestripe ribbon snakes (T. s. nitae), found only along the Gulf coast of northwestern peninsular Florida. (Conant and Collins, 1991)


Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.


Conant, R., J. Collins. 1991. Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern/Central North America, 3rd edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Harding, J. 2000. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Dewey, T. 2005. "Thamnophis sauritus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 19, 2024 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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