Eastern Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)
This medium-sized, slender species is distinguished by the presence of three stripes. These stripes may be yellowish to orangish in color. In some individuals the stripes are vibrant, in others they are dull. The background color is variable, but usually black or very dark brown. Lighter areas, especially below the lateral stripes, may create a checkerboard appearance. The belly is rather plain and cream-colored; some small black dots may be present along the sides.
The Eastern Gartersnake (T. s. sirtalis) is known to occur statewide in Arkansas, but populations in the extreme northwestern tip of the state may show the influence the Red-sided Gartersnake (T. s. parietalis). As the name suggests, this subspecies has red rather than black sides.
This species can be distinguished from its sister-species, the Orange-striped Ribbonsnake (T. proximus proximus), by the presence of dark, vertical bars on the labial scales and the absence of a light spot just in front of each eye. The Orange-striped Ribbonsnake is even more slender than the Eastern Gartersnake and has a significantly longer tail (about 1/3 of the total length).
This species is also known as a Grass Snake, Garden Snake, Gardener Snake, or the like.
This species is at home in a variety of habitats, from woodlands to grasslands, but it is even more common in a suburban environment! Areas that are moist and grassy seem to provide the most suitable microhabitats. It is often uncovered when people are doing landscaping work or may simply be crawling through the yard. Trash piles in town are good places to look for this species. Areas underneath storage sheds, cracks in foundations, and similar places may be utilized for hibernation through the winter.
Emergence from hibernation occurs in early spring. It is, in fact, one of the earliest species to emerge. (Numerous reports indicate that it may be visible on the surface even while snow is covering the ground!) Breeding season occurs almost immediately afterward and continues through early spring. Individuals then spread out to forage. Females give birth to live young in late summer.
This species eats a variety of different prey, including earthworms and other soft-bodied invertebrates, fish, frogs, and salamanders. It is well-known for having partial immunity to the toxic secretions of toads and some salamanders.
The Eastern Gartersnake is an active, diurnal forager. It is often encountered by humans as it prowls for food along fence lines, beside storage sheds, etc. Prey is neither constricted nor envenomated, but it may be shaken vigorously until subdued or simply grasped until the prey tires of struggling.
This species is typically feisty when first captured, but usually tames down quickly. With some initial patience past the "stinky stage", it does quite well as a pet.
The primary defense for this species is evasion! As it slithers quickly through the grass, the stripes confuse a potential predator as to its direction. It is nearly impossible to keep track of whether you are chasing the head or tail! If captured, however, it will defend itself by biting, pooping, and emitting a foul-smelling musk.
Despite frequent encounters with humans, this species is common and abundant. Many people recognize this species as harmless and leave it alone.