How to Tell a Garter from a Ribbon Snake

Sitting on a rock in the hot sun is a yellow-striped snake soaking in the sun. With only a glance before it slithers away, it’s hard to determine what type of snake it was. The yellow lining is a feature on both Eastern Garter Snakes and Eastern Ribbon Snakes. So how do you tell them apart? Learn more about how to differentiate these two reptiles. 

Eastern Garter Snake

Two garter snakes coming out of leaves on a plant
Eastern Garter Snakes © Michael Onyon

Sometimes mistakenly called a “garden snake,” garter snakes get their name from a female under garment, the garter belt. They sport long, yellow stripes down the length of their green, brown, or black bodies. Sometimes, their stripes are not well defined and appear to be more checkered than a prominent line.

Although they can get large with an average of about 20-22″ in length (and can grow up to 54″ long), there is no need to worry: garters are generally shy and avoid people. 

Garter Snake coiled in fallen leaves
Eastern Garter Snake

As one of the most common snakes, they can be found just about anywhere, including in gardens, forests, and parks. These snakes are so common, they’re even the Massachusetts state reptile.  

Eastern Ribbon Snake

Ribbon snake on a rock
Eastern Ribbon Snake © Kathy Diamontopoulos

Like the garter snake, ribbon snakes have long yellow stripes against their dark body, but there are a couple of key differences. Eastern Ribbon Snakes have a white mark just in front of the eye, which is absent in the garter snake. Additionally, ribbon snakes have a more slender body and longer tails, which account for about one-third of their bodies.

Ribbon snakes prefer to live near wetlands and waterbodies and can even be found swimming for food. They, too, are shy and nonvenomous, but typically harder to find.  

Ribbon snake moving through branches
Eastern Ribbon Snake © Danielle Rizzo

More Massachusetts Snakes

Ready to learn more about snakes? Visit our snake wildlife page to learn more about other species of snakes found in Massachusetts. If you come across a snake in your outdoor explorations, take a picture and tag us on Instagram or Facebook.

2 thoughts on “How to Tell a Garter from a Ribbon Snake

  1. Jonathan Davis

    Didn’t know about the white mark in front of a ribbon snakes eye! Will have to be on the lookout for that field mark next time I am wondering about this snake ID challenge.

  2. Bob Nordstrom

    Like a lot of people, I knew virtually nothing about Ribbon Snakes and thought it was just a variant of the Garter Snake. A book on any subject can be overwhelming with details. These little blurbs are a nice digestible bite of information. Thank you, and please keep them coming.


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