Garter snakes and ribbon snakes are easy to confuse. All garter snakes belong to the genus Thamnophis.
Ribbon snakes are members of the genus. There are two species recognized, the ribbon snake Thamnophis sauritis and the Western ribbon snake Thamnophis proximus.
Both of these have several subspecies that are also called ribbon snakes. While ribbon snakes are pretty similar to other garter snakes in the genus, there are some ways to tell them apart even in areas where both garter and ribbon snakes are found.
1. Body Shape
The key difference between a ribbon snake and a garter snake is the body shape. Ribbon snakes are notably more slender than a typical garter snake.
This is partly what gives ribbon snakes their name. Garter snakes as a whole are slim to medium snakes when it comes to body shape.
This can be hard to notice unless you have two snakes to compare or are used to what one species looks like. A starving garter snake could also look thin like a ribbon snake off you are not used to what a healthy snake looks like.
A fat or gravid ribbon snake could also fool most observers as well.
2. Slimmer Head
Ribbon snakes can also be told apart by a more slender head. If you can compare the two snakes directly, ribbon snakes tend to have a slimmer head.
3. Head Markings
One of this big differences between a common ribbon snake and the garter snake species that shares its range is the facial markings.
Ribbon snakes have a white marking in front of the eye that garter snakes lack.
Garter snakes also have a noticeable pattern to the labial scales around the mouth. These traits are very useful for identifying ribbon snakes (T. sauritis) from the garter snakes in their native range.
While other differences could be mistaken easily, these markings on the head are a reliable indicator of which species you are looking at.
Both species of ribbon snake are semi-aquatic. Both are found in a wide geographical area, but never far from a body of water. Garter snakes can be found near bodies of water, but most species are not restricted to bodies of water.
Ribbon snakes are specialized predators of aquatic prey. They primarily eat fish and amphibians with the rare mammal added. The Western ribbon snake even hunts frogs by striking with the mouth closed near where it expects to find a front.
Once the frog runs, the snake chases it down and eats it. Ribbon snakes are all very fast and active predators that pursue prey. Garter snake diet depends on the exact species.
Many will eat frogs and fish, but some species prefer worms or specialize in eating newts that are toxic to other predators.
As of the time of writing, all ribbon snakes are considered non-venomous. They will typically eat prey live or crush it in their jaws.
Some species of garter snake have been proven to utilize a neurotoxin to subdue prey. It is very weak and not capable of causing serious harm to a human, but it can help subdue prey.
7. Defensive Behavior
Ribbon snakes are well-known for speeding away from potential predators. They will use their speed to flee under brush or will take to the water to escape predators.
Garter snakes will flee to areas where their pattern helps hide them and snakes near bodies of water may choose to swim.
When picked up, ribbon and garter snakes prefer thrashing and defecating to ward off predation attempts. Garter snakes are also likely to strike of cornered.
8. General Behavior
Ribbon snakes are typically solitary snakes. They typically brumate alone. They will find a den and stay there until the outside temperature is high for several days.
Ribbon snakes have been observed leaving their dens during winter if there have been several unseasonably warm days. Ribbon snakes also typically mate during spring or summer.
The male follows a scent trail to find receptive females. Garter snakes are famous for being more social snakes. Many species in cold climate will spend the winter in communal dens.
The Eastern garter snake is known for having hundreds or even thousands of snakes in one den. Garter snakes will travel long distances to reach these communal dens.
Once spring arrives, male snakes exit the den and wait for females. When the females emerge, they form the mating balls the species is known for.
After the female picks a mate, she will leave to return to her normal territory. Garter snakes that brumate together may also be found together on cold days since multiple snakes can maintain their body temperatures when I’m close contact.
Baby garter snakes will also typically stick together longer than baby ribbon snakes.
Ribbon snakes are two specific species of garter snake that share similar looks and behaviors. Garter snakes are a more general group that covers a number of related species and a large geographical range.
If you are interested in keeping a garter snake as a pet, be sure to read my garter snake care sheet to create the right environment.
While they have many similarities, ribbon snakes do still have differences from the rest of the genus. If you have any questions, please leave a comment below.
If you have any experience with garter snakes and ribbon snakes, please share your thoughts below as well.