Flora and fauna of the Athens County area, and occasionally habitats outside Ohio. Subject matter will consist of both interpretive material and taxonomic issues in plant and animal identification.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Short-headed Garter Snake in Ohio

Bald Eagles are good enough, but finding a very rare snake for Ohio is even better. I had the opportunity to check out Thamnophis brachystoma, the Short-headed Garter Snake with Ray Novotny, who seems to be the only person interested in their status for Ohio. Ray surveys the population of these snakes in the Youngstown area of Mahoning County. He has also discovered a population just north in Trumbull County.  As promised, I will not disclose the exact locations they are found.

These snakes, like many other species, like to hide under boards in open fields. After checking under the first board, all we found was this American Toad, Anaxyrus (Bufo) americanus. One must be patient and keep trying.

Upon lifting the second board, a pair of surprised and confused Meadow Voles Microtus pennsylvanicus  were the only thing found. Boy, I was hoping we wouldn't strike out today.

Third time is a charm. Finally, Ray lifted a board and there it was. It's tough to squeeze on down and get a shot before it slithers away. We found several that day, some more skittish than others.

My first impressions were mixed. In one sense it just looked like a regular baby garter snake. On the other, the color reminded me more of Dekay's Brown Snake. That idea quickly disappeared when we found a Brown Snake sitting right next to one of these.

Short-headed Garters are small snakes, averaging a little over a foot in length. The largest recorded is around 22 inches. They live in grassy fields, often in urbanized settings, and feed strictly on worms.

Simply put, Short-headed Garters have a smaller, more blunt face and head. More importantly, they seem to lack a neck. It looks like there is no clear dividing area between the head and body. If you don't look at snakes on a regular basis, this description probably doesn't tell you much.

The overall color is brown. Like other garters, it does show the light colored side and dorsal stripes. Black stitch marks scattered along the body is also typical for a garter.

Click on the photo if you can't see it, but the end of its tongue is sticking out. The only other place this snake is found is south-west New York and north-west Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania counties bordering Ohio all have populations. So the question remains, are these snakes introduced or do they occur here naturally? This is the age of genetic studies, so there is a nice thesis waiting for someone here.

I included a couple of stock photos below of our common Eastern Garter Snake that everybody has seen. Notice the head is much bigger, and that there is a narrowing into a neck region. This is what is absent on the Small-headed.


  1. Great photos, very helpful!

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  3. I think i found a short-headed Gater snake in my kitchen today im from nw ohio its very little when i first saw it i thought it was a big earth worm till i got a better look with the light on

  4. Please let me know if you can identify the pic on my profile

  5. Very interesting! I live in Trumbull county, and I've seen this snake 3 times in the last 2 days. I'm not sure how many of them live in my yard. I know I had at least 2 because I found my dog with one last week.

  6. Anonymous; You should let Ray over at Mill Creek Metro Park know about that.

  7. Found a recently deceased short-headed garter snake in my basement in northern Columbiana County Ohio last night.

    1. Tanya, I'm just reading this almost five months late. If you have the specimen or photo I'd LOVE to see it.


    2. we have allot of these in marysville ohio

  8. We found one here in Xenia, OH.

  9. Got one here in Philadelphia