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The 2 Species of Garter Snakes in North Carolina

North Carolina has many habitat zones and regions that are hospitable to snakes. The state is home to 38 species of snakes. Only six of the 38 are venomous, and it’s easy to avoid them if you’re in their environment. In this article, we’ll learn more about garter snakes in North Carolina.

Garter snakes are slender, nonvenomous snakes that perform useful ecological functions like eating pests and supporting mid-sized carnivore populations. They are all members of the genus Thamnophis. 

Keep reading to learn about these snakes’ habitat, favorite foods, appearance, and behavior.

Collage photo garter snakes in North Carolina

2 Garter Snakes in North Carolina

There are only two species of garter snake in North Carolina. Neither poses a threat to people. If you see one, keep your distance. You don’t want to disturb a snake, even if it’s not venomous!

1. Eastern Garter Snake

Eastern garter snake
Eastern garter snake | image by Peter Paplanus via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific name: Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis 

The Eastern Garter Snake roams throughout all of North Carolina’s ecoregions. It lives in the thick forests of the Great Smoky Mountains and the sandy soils of the Coastal Plain. Eastern Garter Snakes are actually a subspecies of the widespread Common Garter Snake.

Specimens vary widely in color depending on where they’re from. A snake’s base color ranges from olive green to red, black, brown, or gray.

It usually has small black dots along the length of its body. No matter the color, an Eastern Garter snake has three light stripes. These stripes extend from the head to tail along the spine, left side, and right side.

They grow to between 36 and 48 inches long. This snake is slender and prefers to eat soft-bodied prey like worms, fish, and salamanders. Larger snakes occasionally eat birds’ eggs or rodents like mice and voles.

2. Eastern Ribbon Snake

Eastern ribbon snake
Eastern ribbon snake | image by John J. Mosesso via Wikimedia Commons

Scientific name: Thamnophis sauritus 

Eastern Ribbon Snakes may not have the name “garter,” but they are a type of garter snake. They are very lithe and slender-bodied but measure in at an average of about 30 inches long, a little shorter than the Eastern Garter Snake.

Its quick reflexes come in handy when it whips through the water or slithers quickly through the tall grass along a pond’s edge. It relies heavily on freshwater to supply its preferred prey: frogs, fish, and salamanders.

Look for it east of the Smoky Mountains, all the way to the coast. It prefers low-lying areas where water collects. Specimens often blend into shadows because of their dark base color.

Tell it apart from other snakes by way of its thin body and three light stripes. Like other garter snakes, there’s always a stripe on the left flank, a stripe along the spine, and a stripe on the right flank.

Other Snakes in North Carolina

Only one of North Carolina’s six venomous snakes inhabits the entire state. The other five live in the Coastal Plain, an area of the state low in elevation and close to the coast.

Copperhead

Coiled eastern copperhead
Coiled eastern copperhead | image by Peter Paplanus via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Agkistrodon contortrix 

Don’t mess with a Copperhead! North Carolina’s most common venomous snake lives in fields, forests, swamps, and suburban areas. Most bites occur when a Copperhead is accidentally disturbed by a person who didn’t see their camouflaged body. The hourglass-shaped patches of copper and brown on this snake’s back blend in well with dead leaves on the forest floor.

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Copperheads average a little over two feet long, but they can grow up to 37 inches. Water isn’t a limiting factor for them, so they eat prey from dry and wet habitats.

This snake dines on rodents, birds, birds’ eggs, frogs, and even other snakes. Its favorite hunting strategy is to ambush its prey.

Eastern Cottonmouth

Eastern Cottonmouth
Eastern Cottonmouth

Scientific name: Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus

The Southern United States has many names for the Cottonmouth, which also goes by the name “water moccasin.” It’s venomous and it lives in eastern North Carolina along the low-lying coastal plain where water and fish are abundant. Cottonmouths are active hunters that swim after aquatic animals and slither on land in pursuit of mice, lizards, and amphibians.

The average snake measures in at an average of 40 inches long. Most have dark brown scales with very dark bands from side to side. As the snake ages, the bands fade or darken.

It’s uncommon to spot a cottonmouth hunting because they are nocturnal. You’re more likely to see one basking during the day on a rock or branch near the shore of a body of water.

Eastern Kingsnake

Eastern Kingsnake
Eastern Kingsnake | credit: Greg Gilbert | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Lampropeltis getula

Eastern Kingsnakes are big but harmless. They can pack a nasty bite because of their size – adults grow up to 36 to 48 inches long – but they have no venom. Most nature enthusiasts love Eastern Kingsnakes because along with a regular diet of small mammals, amphibians, and birds’ eggs, they eat other snakes. In fact, they are immune to copperhead and cottonmouth venom.

Identify an Eastern Kingsnake by way of its light and dark scales. Most snakes are black with light markings. In the mountains, the light markings look like spots. At the coast, they form a chain-link pattern.

They live throughout North Carolina except in a narrow strip along the Tennessee border. This species adapts well to human development. Don’t be scared if you discover an Eastern Kingsnake basking on a stone in your backyard. Give it space and it will probably slither away.

Corn Snake

Corn snake 
Corn snake | image by via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific name: Elaphe guttata

It’s elementary to identify a Corn Snake. It’s red! Corn snakes’ base color is orange or red. They have dark brown and red bands that repeat along the length of the body. If you’re lucky enough to see its belly, it has a black and white “checkerboard” pattern.

Look for them throughout most of North Carolina. Populations don’t live along the Virginia border or in the northwest corner.

Corn snakes rely on trees to help them stalk and find prey. They are good climbers that eat tree frogs, baby birds, and birds’ eggs, food sources other snakes can’t reach. Small mammals like mice and voles are a part of a Corn snake’s diet.

Rough Green Snake

Rough green snake
Rough green snake | Photo by Peter Paplanus via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Opheodrys aestivus

Rough Green Snakes have bright green scales that stand out against tree bark and the ground. This is because they are not adapted to terrestrial life. This snake lives most of its life in trees! It hunts spiders and insects.

They are lithe and agile snakes. While their bodies are barely the diameter of a finger, they average around 26 inches long. This helps them stay balanced if they need to wrap themselves around a tree branch or reach from one tree to another.

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Spot Rough Green Snakes throughout all but the northwest corner of North Carolina. They prefer to live near water and living vegetation. When females lay eggs in the spring, they share nests.