The common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) is just that — common.
They are a small snake, usually less than 3 feet, and are non-venomous. The snakes are found throughout Iowa and much of the U.S., as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.
However common they are in the summertime, they quickly disappear as the weather gets colder. So where do they go?
Garter snakes hibernate through the winter, usually from late October through March or early April, although you might see them out basking in the sun on a warmer winter day. They are cold-blooded, like other reptiles, so basking in the sun helps to raise their body temperature.
To survive the winter, garter snakes will find a safe and snug place underground. They may look for a natural cavity or use a rodent burrow. They also find hibernation areas under rock piles or stumps. Sometimes, they may even look for warm places inside structures and have been found in basements. They can fit through a half-inch wide crack, so make sure to seal up any foundation cracks or window gaps to ensure that snakes do not get in your house in the winter.
Garter snakes also spend the winter as a group to help stay warm. They may travel long distances to an established hibernation spot, or a hibernaculum, to overwinter with up to hundreds of other garter snakes or even snakes of different species. Lying together and coiling their bodies tightly ensures that they stay at a minimum temperature for survival. Garter snakes often sleep together during the warm season as well, making sure to keep their body temperatures from fall too low overnight.
During hibernation, snakes stay hydrated by absorbing moisture through their skin. They do not eat during this period, because their body temperatures are too low to digest food. Like other animals that hibernate, they store up body fat prior to winter to prepare for the dormant season.
Check out this video of the nature center snakes eating:
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