Western Carolina Nature Center Notes: Garter Snakes
As spring approaches, we begin to see the natural world awaken. Birds are chirping, insects are buzzing and wildlife seems more abundant than ever. One welcome critter is the garter snake.
Garter snakes brumate, or hibernate, during the winter. Oftentimes they hibernate with a large group of other garter snakes in burrows. In fact, there have been recent studies done on social constructs within the garter snake community. According to the Smithsonian Institution, garter snakes are much more social than once thought. The study found that garter snakes tend to stick with one “friend” or socialize with one specific group of snakes. When separated from their group or friend, they always find their way back to their preferred clique.
Garter snakes are important animals to have around because they eat pests such as slugs and rodents. While they are not dangerous to humans, they do have a rear fang that excretes venom as they swallow their prey. The venomous tooth is so far back in their mouths that it would be impossible for a garter snake to inject venom into a human.
What’s even more fascinating about garter snakes is that they can sometimes be poisonous to predators too. Some garter snakes eat a species of newt that is toxic. While this toxin is very dangerous to humans, the snake survives and stores the toxins in its liver. If a predator were to consume the snake after it ate the newt, the animal would get sick and learn not to eat a garter snake again.
If you see a garter snake in the wild, respect its space. If startled, a garter snake will coil up and wag its tail, as if to mimic a rattlesnake. If you’d like to attract these helpful creatures to your springtime garden to help with pest control, offer a fresh water source near the ground, as garter snakes love water.
The Appalachian Station at the WNC Nature Center houses several snakes that are common to Western North Carolina, including the garter snake, copperhead, rattlesnake, corn snake, black rat snake and rough green snake. The more we learn about these special animals, the more we can appreciate them and what they do for our ecosystem.