The New International Encyclopædia/Garter-snake

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The New International Encyclopædia
Garter-snake
Edition of 1906. See also Garter snake on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

GARTER-SNAKE (so-called from its color-stripes) . An elastic name given in North America to any of various small snakes, but properly applied to striped species of the genus Eutænia, which includes those most often seen of all our serpents. The genus is widespread, and contains, according to Cope, twenty-four species north of the Isthmus of Panama. Several of these are very slender, mainly green with lighter stripes, and are popularly distinguished as ribbon-snakes (q.v.). One Oregon species is black, and some semi-tropical species have the stripes broken so as to form series of spots or cross-bars. The best-known species is the ordinary garter-snake (Eutænia sirtalis), which is distributed over the whole United States, Southern Canada, and the lowlands of Mexico and Guatemala. Throughout this large area it presents a wide series of variations which have been distinguished by Cope, Annual Report of the United States National Museum (Washington, 1898), as eleven sub-species, but his distinctions are difficult to follow.

The length of the garter-snake when fairly grown is about three feet, of which from one-fourth to one-fifth belongs to the tail. As a species it is the most widely distributed and most numerous in individuals of any of our serpents, except in the Western arid regions. This is due to its extreme fecundity, to its agility and ingenuity in pursuit of food or in escape from danger, and to its willingness to fight off assailants. It is to be found in all sorts of situations, but is partial to grassy meadows and to the borders of streams, where the frogs, toads, fish, mice, and shrews upon which it mainly feeds are numerous; and it takes to water willingly and swims well. Some other species of the genus are almost habitually water-snakes. All garter-snakes are able to climb well, wriggling easily up a rough tree-trunk, a wall of brick, or of rough boards, and they search the bushes for eggs and young birds in the spring, but rarely climb high. They are bold in coming about gardens and village streets, but enter cellars, dairies, and chicken-houses less often than do some larger serpents, such as the milk-snake. All garter-snakes retain the eggs in the oviduct of the mother until they hatch and the embryos have reached a length of 5½ to 7 inches, when they are extruded, from 25 to 75 being produced (late in summer) by a single female; but when so many are born some will be small or even confined within the egg-covering when pressed from the vent. These young are able at once to take care of themselves, and will struggle vigorously for earthworms, etc. They remain together, and are watched and protected by the mother, who will brave formidable perils in her anxiety for their welfare. It has been asserted repeatedly by credible witnesses that she receives them into her mouth and throat for temporary refuge from danger, whence they emerge as soon as possible. The courage and pugnacity of this snake are familiar facts; it is the only one of our common snakes that will ever come toward a man with threatening demeanor when attacked. Its bite is quite harmless so far as poison is concerned, but its strength and weasel-like courage make it a successful antagonist of many animals whose size would seem to give them immunity. It is itself, however, the favorite prey of the blacksnake, copperhead, and of many reptile-hunting birds and mammals. On the approach of cold weather these snakes seek some opening in the ground, creep as far in as practicable, and become dormant, emerging, however, rather earlier in the spring than most other serpents. In the West the burrows of ground-squirrels, badgers, etc., are favorite hibernacula; and in these retreats great numbers of the snakes often gather and entangle themselves into a ball of sleeping serpents — a practice induced, probably, by sexual impulses, as well as by a desire for mutual comfort.

In addition to the common and variable garter-snake (Eutænia sirtalis) there occurs numerously in the Eastern United States the ribbon-snake (q.v.). Florida has a local species (Eutænia Saekenii); and the Mississippi Valley and plains region possess a local species (Eutænia redix), which is peculiar in its fondness for water and a fish diet. In the central region and on the Pacific Coast is found another species (Eutænia elegans), which exhibits many variations of color, and has habits similar to the Eastern form. Finally, many species belong to Mexico and Central America. See Snake.