Short-headed Garter Snake

Thamnophis brachystoma (Cope, 1892)

Photo of Short-headed Garter Snake
Photo by Jennifer Schlick. Used with permission.
Max. Recorded Length 55.9 cm / 22 inches
Range New York, Pennsylvania
Pet Trade Availability ★☆☆☆ rarely available
Captivity Rating ★★☆☆ fair

Note: These species pages are in various stages of completion. Some are basically finished; others are very much under construction. Please be patient while I work on this section.

The Short-headed Garter Snake is one of the smallest garter snake species. It’s quite similar to its nearest relative, the larger and more widespread Butler’s Garter Snake, Thamnophis butleri — its probable ancestor, from which it was likely separated during a glacial period. Like its larger cousin, the Short-headed Garter Snake specializes on soft-bodied invertebrates; its diet in the wild consists almost completely of earthworms.

This snake’s range is limited to southwestern New York and western Pennsylvania. It can be distinguished from the Eastern Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis, by its small size and blunt snout; its head and neck are not distinct from the rest of the body. It can be distinguished from the Eastern Ribbon Snake, Thamnophis sauritus sauritus, using the method to tell garter snakes and ribbon snakes apart.


The Short-headed Garter Snake is not listed as a threatened or endangered species in New York or Pennsylvania.

Captive Care

This species is not often seen in captivity, but I have heard of it being kept. I have no experience with short-headed garters myself, but Rossi and Rossi (2003) say that they can be kept the same as Butler’s garters. On their captive maintenance difficulty index, where 1 is the easiest and 5 the most difficult, they rate this species a 3.

Like the Butler’s garter, the short-headed garter can be kept on an earthworm-based diet. In that case, vitamin D and calcium supplementation will be needed. It may be worthwhile to try to convert captive short-headed garters to a more nutritionally complete diet, such as fish or mice, as I’ve done with Butler’s garters; however, according to Rossi and Rossi, this is done more easily with Butler’s garters than with short-headed garters.

A 10-gallon cage should be sufficient for this species. Rossman et al. (1996) report that short-headed garters do not do well at temperatures higher than 25°C (77°F). It may not be necessary to provide cage heating unless the cage is in a strongly air-conditioned room.

Small natricine snakes are prone to dessication; a humidity box may be required for this species, especially for young and neonate snakes.

If you have experience with this species and would like to share, please contact me.

For general information on keeping garter snakes in captivity, please see the Care Guide.

Articles and News


Ernst, Carl H. and Evelyn M. Ernst. 2003. Snakes of the United States and Canada. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

Rossi, John V. and Roxanne Rossi. 2003. Snakes of the United States and Canada: Natural History and Care in Captivity. Malabar FL: Krieger.

Rossman, Douglas A., Neil B. Ford and Richard A. Seigel. 1996. The Garter Snakes: Evolution and Ecology. Norman OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Tennant, Alan and R. D. Bartlett. 1999. Snakes of North America: Eastern and Central Regions. Houston: Gulf.