The Differences Between Garter Snakes and Water Snakes


water snake

In the United States, and the rest of America, garter snakes and water snakes may be easily confused with each other. Both snakes are common, nonvenomous, growing up to between two and five-feet when they become mature. Each is found throughout a wide range in the United States, Canada and Mexico and they often occupy similar areas. In some species, their coloring and markings may even appear quite similar. However, there are several differences between them.

The garter snakes belong to the genus Thamnophis. There are almost 30 species of garter snakes. The water snakes are in the genus Nerodia, and include about 10 known species. Both garter snakes and water snakes include many subspecies. Species and subspecies are sometimes categorized differently by different organizations. It should be noted that while anacondas and some kinds of boas and pythons often live in and around water, none are water snakes or garter snakes.

Garter snakes have markings that resemble a garter belt, hence the name. They usually have one or three stripes running along the length of their body with checkered markings between the stripes. Garter snakes are usually more slender for their length than are water snakes. Water snakes are often brown or dark green in color, with markings of black, brown, or yellow. They have thicker, heavier bodies for their length than do garter snakes. With both water snakes and garter snakes, though, markings may be faded and blurred, making it more difficult to tell the difference between them.

garter snakes

Common Garter Snake

Water snakes, as their name implies, spend nearly all of their time either in the water or in branches overhanging water. They are excellent swimmers. Garter snakes often live near water but are not always in the water. They can live in areas where water is available but not necessarily in bodies of water, such as meadows, fields, forests, and even mountains. Garter snakes are generally not found in very dry areas, such as the deserts of northwest Mexico and the southwestern United States.

Water snakes do their hunting mainly in the water. Their diet is made up almost entirely of fish and frogs, though they sometimes also eat aquatic insects. Garter snakes eat a wider variety of food, although they do also eat frogs and fish. A garter snake’s diet also includes earthworms, slugs, lizards, small birds and mammals.

Garter snakes are commonly kept as pets and, if handled gently and frequently, will generally become quite used to human contact. They are considered relatively easy to tame and keep as pets. Water snakes also are not difficult snakes to keep alive in captivity, but they are more aggressive and prone to biting. As a consequence, water snakes do not usually make good pets for people who want to occasionally handle them. Water snakes have relatively long, sharp teeth for catching fish, so their bite is considered particularly painful compared to other similarly-sized, non-fanged snakes, such as garter snakes. Of course almost any snake can inflict a painful bite and all snakes should be treated with caution, for the sake of the snake as well as the person. But garter snakes tend to be more docile.

These are similar kinds of snakes. However, between the habitat of the snake, the body shape, markings and temperament of the snake, it is possible to tell the difference between water snakes and garter snakes.

I’ve rescued both kinds of snakes, but the garter snake is the calmer of the two, both in the wild and in a rescue situation.




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Posted in pets and animals and tagged , , , , , by with 7 comments.


  • Andria Perry says:

    I did not read this, I did not look at the picture. I scrolled down really fast. I am not a fan of any snake. AND YES I know the world needs them to balance out nature.

  • rextrulove says:

    @andriaperry, if these were the only snakes you had to contend with, there would be no worry and they are both harmless and both would probably do their best to get away if they saw you or any other human.

  • waflay says:

    Nice to know. In Kenya, most snakes are poisonous. Snakes are rarely kept as pets,and in most cases a pet snake is always linked to other dark activities.

    Oops! I fear snakes more than any other animal.

    • rextrulove says:

      @waflay, in the US, the only poisonous snakes are rattlesnakes and coral snakes. There are many others, but they are harmless and most are afraid of man.

      • Tina says:

        We also have the poisonous Copperhead and Water Moccasins AKA: Cottonmouth in the U.S. I’ve seen a lot of confusion in distinguishing between the Copperhead and the Water Snake, because the color can be very similar. Many people also think that the harmless water snake is a water moccasin, simply because it is in the water.
        I enjoyed this very much!

        • rextrulove says:

          You make an excellent point. Here in Montana, we have no cottonmouths, but a similar thing occurs with gopher snakes. There are few snakes that are as docile as a gopher snake, yet the coloration is similar to that of a diamondback rattlesnake, so many people kill them when they see them. It is a pity. They are not only calm snakes, to the point where a person would need to work at provoking them in order for them to bite (and I have no idea why a person would try to provoke one), but they also do a fantastic job of keeping the rodent population down.

  • AaronB says:

    Actually garter snakes are venomous rear fanged snakes but with a very mild venum not normally problematic to humans.

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