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garter snake with stubbed tail.

Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)

(click on image to see close-up of the head)

As spring arrives and the weather warms in northeastern Wisconsin, many reptiles have left their winter refuge and become active. Among the first snakes to emerge from hibernation is the eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis). Eastern garter snakes, a common inhabitant of forests, old fields, and urban parks, can be seen in the spring time basking on rocks and hillsides in the immediate vicinity of their hibernacula. They usually hang out by their hibernacula for a few weeks and partake in breeding, then they disperse into the surrounding habitat. Occasionally hundreds of garter snakes share the same hibernacula, making spring emergence quite impressive.
All snakes, including eastern garter snakes, use their forked tongue to sample microscopic particles from the air. These particles are put into a special organ in the roof of the mouth called the Jacobson's organ. The Jacobson's organ, which is highly sensitive to air-born chemicals, is used for locating prey, finding mates, and avoiding predators.
If you look carefully, the snake pictured here has a stub instead of a pointed tail. The stub tail could be caused of an unfortunate accident with a lawn mower, a predator, or a car. However, often the tip of tail, which may be in an cooler part of the winter refuge, freezes while the snake is hibernating. The tissue on the tip of the tail dies and a stub tail is the result.

  • Text by Graduate Student Steve Price

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Last updated on April 15, 2014