Juvenile Maritime Garter Snake (photo Jeffrey Parker)
These two species are frequently confused because they both have stripes. Ribbon snakes have three equally distinct yellow stripes, one down the middle of the back (mid-dorsal stripe) and one on each side (lateral stripe). Each stripe is two scales wide. The area between the mid-dorsal and lateral stripes is always solid black (never grey, brown or checkerboard patterned). Garter Snakes have a weakly-defined mid-dorsal stripe that is never bright yellow (it is usually tan, grey or whitish) and is not sharp-edged or even in width.There is a distinct checkerboard pattern on each side of the mid-dorsal stripe. For individuals with a dark belly there may be a slightly paler stripe on each side just above the belly scales, but it is much further down from the top of the back than in a Ribbon Snake. The snakes have to be either sitting still or actually in your hand for most of these features to be seen clearly. Bear in mind that a Garter Snake that is moving fast always looks more distinctly striped than when it is still. Its body is also much thicker in proportion to its length than a Ribbon Snake. If you catch the snake, you can also look at the tail length. In Ribbon Snakes, the tail is about 1/3 of the body length. In Garter Snakes, the tail is much smaller. To find a snake's tail, you need to look at the snake's belly and the find vent or cloaca, the spot where the tail starts. This is easy to do as the scale covering the vent looks different from all the other belly scales.
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