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What is a Ribbon Snake?

By DM Gutierrez
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The ribbon snake, or Thamnophis sauritus, is a shiny-scaled, slender member of the garter snake family. The snakes are easily identifiable by their slim bodies and long vertical stripes. They use their ability to disappear in thick undergrowth and swim quickly through water to escape predators. There are four types of ribbons snakes: bluestripe, peninsula, eastern, and northern ribbon snakes,

These snakes can come in colors from coppery-gold to blue on top and white to green underneath. They grow to between 18 and 38 inches (45 to 97 cm) long. Eastern ribbon snakes are usually green with yellow stripes down the length of their bodies. Bluestripe ribbon snakes have blue-green backs with light blue lateral stripes and yellow-green undersides.

Peninsula ribbon snakes are olive-brown with a light tan stripe down the middle of the back and a thin pale green stripe on either side. The eastern ribbon snake is typically brown or black with vivid yellow or white stripes along its length. The tail of all four of these subspecies makes up a third of the snake’s body, a feature that helps distinguish it from the related garter snake.

Ribbon snakes eat primarily amphibians, fish, and worms. These snakes live near the edges of ponds and lakes and search the water for fish, tadpoles, frogs, and salamanders. Some sub-species of ribbon snakes can be found in roadside ditches and canals and are most active during the day.

When confronted by a predator, the ribbon snake will first try to escape, darting into thick vegetation or plunging into water. If they are caught, ribbon snakes will thrash about, flatten their heads, or coil, exhibiting the protective behaviors of some venomous snakes. The ribbon snake rarely strikes and is not poisonous. It does shower its attacker with feces and a strong musk scent. A last resort for the ribbon snake is to detach its tail as some lizards do—the tails of ribbon snakes do not regenerate.

Ribbons snakes have an unusual reproductive behavior. After copulation, a male ribbon snake keeps other males from fertilizing the female by inserting a plug into the female’s reproductive tract. Unlike many snake species that lay eggs, female ribbon snakes give birth to live young, which look like smaller versions of the adult. Birth of three to 26 young snakes typically occurs in the summer, and neither parent cares for the juveniles.

Although they are prey to several animal species, habitat encroachment is the ribbon snake’s most immediate danger. Ribbon snakes are not officially endangered, but they are generally reducing in numbers due to human intrustion into their habitats. Loss of water sources from housing developments and increased predation by household pets are typically their greatest threat.

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Discussion Comments
By ZipLine — On Jul 14, 2014

I've heard about some snakes releasing an unpleasant odor when threatened before. I think this is something that many snake species do to protect themselves.

My friend actually has kept ribbon snakes before and he called it musk. Apparently, it's a liquid substance that the snake releases from anal glands that smells awful. I think people who handle ribbon snakes experience this often.

I think this is just a sign that ribbon snakes are not meant to be captive pets. They don't like being handled.

By ysmina — On Jul 14, 2014

@bear78-- Was it an Eastern ribbon snake? If you leave in Eastern US, that must be what you saw.

I don't know about others, but the Eastern ribbon snakes I've seen were fairly small, maybe 15 or 16 inches at most. They're definitely not the scary type. They're completely harmless and mind their own business eating very small fish and frogs.

I think the coolest thing about them is that they don't allow their mate to mate with anyone else. I find that fascinating.

By bear78 — On Jul 13, 2014

I've seen a ribbon snake by the lake near our house. I saw it and then it disappeared in the blink of an eye. These snakes are very fast and they're good at hiding. From what I could see though, they are very beautiful. Their stripes are definitely the most interesting thing about them. I'm happy to know that they are generally harmless. I won't get scared if I see one again.

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