Ribbon Snake vs Garter Snake – The ULTIMATE Comparison

“Garter snake” is a broad term for thirty-five snake species. 

What most people call the “garter snake” is just one species: the Thamnophis saurita, or the common garter snake.

Meanwhile, the ribbon snake itself is one species of garter snake. While there are four subspecies of ribbon snake, when most people think of “ribbon snake,” they are thinking of the Eastern ribbon snake, also known as the common ribbon snake (Thamnophis sirtalis).

These close relatives look confusingly alike–how can you tell which one is in front of you?

The easiest way to visually distinguish common ribbon and garter snakes is through facial markings: Ribbon snakes have a white spot in front of their eyes, while garter snakes have dark marks in front of their lips. Additionally, Ribbon snakes have thinner bodies, narrower heads, and clearer stripes than garter snakes.

The two species also differ in venomosity, sociability, natural habitat, diet, and tail length.

Curious to learn more? Read on to learn more about how these two are different–and similar!

Editor’s Note
This article examines the differences and similarities between common ribbon snakes and common garter snakes. Should there be mentions of only “garter” or “ribbon” snakes, note that it always still refers to the common ones of both species.

Common Ribbon Snake VS Common Garter Snake Quick Comparison

Common RibbonCommon Garter
Body and head shapeBody diameter of 1” Wide headBlack marks on front of lips
Facial markingsWhite spot in front of eyesBlack marks on the front of lips
Body markingsClearly defined, bright-colored stripesStripes are sometimes mixed with spots, making them appear either checkered or less defined
Tail lengthOne-third of its body lengthOne-fourth of its body length
Natural habitatPrefers aquatic habitats (ponds, wetlands)Fields, marshes, and grasslands, but can adapt almost anywhere
DietMostly aquatic animals Mostly terrestrial animals
SociabilitySolitarySolitary, but lives in communal dens every winter
VenomosityNon-venomousSome species are mildly venomous

Crucial Differences Between Common Ribbon Snakes and Common Garter Snakes

ribbon snake vs garter snake

The most obvious visual differences between ribbon and garter snakes are their facial markings, body markings, and body shape.

Ribbon snakes have a white spot in front of their eyes, which garter snakes don’t. Garter snakes have small dark markings on their lips as if each scale was outlined in black, which ribbons lack.

Meanwhile, while ribbon and garter snakes share similar coloring, ribbon snakes have very clear stripes running down their bodies. A garter’s stripes sometimes appear muddled by spots, making it look like a checker pattern instead.

Lastly, it will be easy to tell the snakes apart by their body shape if they are next to each other. Common garter snakes are stockier and have wider heads, while ribbon snakes are thinner with narrower heads.

Beyond these differences, a trained eye can distinguish a ribbon snake’s much longer tail than a garter.

Other differences that take more observation beyond a simple look include their preferred habitat, diet, and sociability.

Common Ribbon Snake VS Common Garter Snake Differences and Similarities 

Here are eight differences and similarities between these two snakes.

Body and Head Shape

garter snake on grass

Both snakes grow 15-30 inches long.

However, garter snakes are typically stockier, with a body diameter of 1 inch and wide heads. Ribbon snakes are more slender, with body diameters of 0.4”-0.8” and narrow heads.

Facial Markings

ribbon snake showing facial markings

Both the ribbon and garter snakes have facial markings that are unique to them and are the easiest way to tell them apart at first glance.

Ribbon snakes have a white mark in front of their eye, which garter snakes lack.

Meanwhile, garter snakes have dark marks along each scale by their lips, as if each scale had a black outline. Ribbon snakes have pure white lips with no “outlined” scales.

Body Markings

ribbon snake on log showing body markings

The ribbon and garter snake have similar coloring, with dark bodies and brightly colored stripes running down them. These stripes are usually yellow but can also be white, tan, and similar shades.

However, if you know what to look for, you can tell these snakes apart by their scale patterns.

Ribbon snakes have three bright stripes: one runs down the center of its back, while the other runs down both sides of its body. You will know the snake is a ribbon if these stripes are clearly defined and clean-looking. 

Why?

Garter snakes also have long, yellow stripes running length-wise down their green, brown, or black bodies. The difference is that their stripes are not well-defined, sometimes because they are mixed with spots. 

Therefore, a garter snake’s stripes may appear more checkered than a clean straight line.

Tail Length

red garter snake on ground

The last physical difference between the two snakes is their tail length.

Ribbon snakes have incredibly long tails that comprise a third of their total body length.

Garter snakes have shorter tails that are a quarter or even less of their body length. Their tails are usually thicker, though.

Editor’s Note
A snake’s tail starts right after its cloaca, or the small opening through which it urinates, defecates, and reproduces.

Natural Habitat

garter snake in pond

To begin the list of non-physical differences is their natural habitat.

Ribbon snakes are found mainly in the Eastern US in aquatic habitats such as ponds and wetlands. They spend much time in the water or basking on rocks and logs along the shoreline.

Garter snakes are prevalent throughout the entire North American continent. While they are primarily found in fields and marshes, they can adapt quickly to any habitat, even urban areas.

Because of this, garter snakes are more easily found in backyards across the United States. Ribbon snakes tend to be trickier to spot in the suburbs! 

Editor’s Note
Garter snakes are so common that Massachusetts declared it their state reptile in 2007.

Diet

Each snake’s diet is influenced by its natural habitat.

Since ribbon snakes spend a lot of time in and near water, they eat a lot of aquatic animals, such as fish, frogs, water bugs, and tadpoles. However, they may also eat small rodents and other prey if necessary.

Garter snakes are more terrestrial and eat more small rodents and worms than ribbon snakes. But, ever the opportunistic eater, garters also love eating their share of fish and frogs.

Sociability

Garter snakes are known for their unique sociability among reptiles, at least during winter. While they spend most of their time alone, garter snakes live in communal dens during the cold months.

These dens can have hundreds or thousands of garter snakes, all gathered together to share warmth and protection.

This trait is sociability evident from hatching: Baby garter snakes have been observed to stay together longer than baby ribbon snakes.

If you are thinking about housing multiple snakes together, a garter snake is a great pet choice.

Ribbon snakes, meanwhile, are the typical solitary snake who prefers to live and brumate alone. They only seek others of their kind during mating season.

Editor’s Note
Brumation is the same as hibernation but for reptiles.

Venomosity

Ribbon snakes are non-venomous. Common garter snakes, though, are mildly venomous.

However, their venom is typically only enough to slow down their prey and not enough to kill them.

Garter snake venom is virtually harmless to humans unless you have an allergy.

Similarities of Common Ribbon and Common Garter Snakes

This article would not be complete without examining how these two snakes are similar.

Here is a brief overview of characteristics ribbons and common garters share:

Active hoursDiurnal (active during the day)
LifespanUp to 10 years in captivity
TemperamentDocile
Defense mechanismWill always prefer to run and hide but will release a musky smell when threatened. It will only bite if under extreme stress.
ReproductionBoth are ovoviviparous (give birth to live young)
Cost and AvailabilityBoth are easily found and available for as little as $20.
Enclosure Requirements10-20 gallon tank, depending on the age and size of the snakeRequired humidity of 50-60%Tank needs a cooler area in the mid-70s and a basking zone of around 90 °F.
Feeding ScheduleYoung snakes eat 2-3 times weekly. Adults can eat once every 7-10 days.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which Snake Is Better For Beginners?

Both ribbon and common garter snakes and good choices for beginner snake owners. Whichever species you get, though, remember to request captive-bred ones.

Snakes from the wild tend to be more difficult to tame and handle, even in the long run.

What Are Other Great Beginner Pet Species?

Aside from garter and ribbon snakes, you can also consider corn snakes, kingsnakes, or the rosy boa!

Conclusion

Mixing up ribbon and garter snakes is normal–even professionals sometimes do it. 

Adding to the confusion is that each snake can be different. There are fat or pregnant ribbon snakes that are thicker than average, and some garter snakes can be skinny. Also, both snakes can lose parts of their tails, making their length less clear.

However, the one thing you can always rely on is the facial markings: Always look out for the white spot in front of the ribbon’s eyes or the dark marks along the lips of a garter.

These two points will help you quickly identify which snake is the ribbon and which is the garter.

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