“Sirtalis” is the Latin word for a garter. It is more-or-less pronounced “SEER-tah-liss.” Back in
1843, an Austrian zoologist came up with this wacko name for a snake that is common
throughout North America. The full scientific name is Thamnophis (pronounced THAM-no-fiss)
sirtalis. Basically, it means a bush snake that wears a garter – or looks like a garter. Take your
The scientific name stuck. So there you have the reason why the official state snake of Virginia
is known by a word for a lady’s undergarment.
Several Garter Snake subspecies are found in the U.S. The subspecies that lives along the
Florida Gulf coast has lovely blue stripes, while the subspecies in mid-western states has red
stripes. Even albinos can be found in the wild, but here in Virginia, their dark stripes vary from
brown to grey to black with lighter cream-colored stripes as a contrast.

Garters in the eastern U.S. average between 18 – 27 inches long, and they are one of the most
commonly seen snakes in Virginia. They eat slugs, earthworms, leeches, lizards, small frogs,
frog eggs, small fish, and even small rodents. It is interesting that one species of earthworm,
the Red Wiggler, is toxic to Garter Snakes. This species of earthworm is native to Europe, and in
the U.S., it is mostly found in commercial composting bins. In turn, Garter Snakes are eaten by

animals such as hawks, crows, herons, raccoons, and other snake species. Juvenile Garters are
sometimes eaten by shrews, bullfrogs, and even large crayfish.
In Virginia, it is not legal to keep more than one native wild snake in captivity without a license,
but it is possible to purchase captive-bred Garters. Although Garters rarely bite people, keep in
mind that some individuals will readily emit a nasty-smelling musk when handled. If you get
the musk on your hands, a lot of washing with soap will be required to get rid of the smell, so
just enjoy watching them as they go about your garden hunting leeches that will eat your

by Susan McSwain for FoN