A snake basks in a sunny spot on a fallen log or in the foliage of a low shrub beside a shallow wetland. Your first impression: garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). But a second look (quick, before it slips away into the water) reveals three very well defined yellow stripes down its dark back and sides. There are no dark splotches or other markings to interfere with its clean yellow and black lines. Its slim head is black, but its face below the eyes is pure white. Unlike the stout garter snake, its body is sleek and its tail is extraordinarily long. This is not the ubiquitous garter snake, but the uncommon eastern ribbon snake (Thamnophis s. sauritus).
The eastern ribbon snake ranges from southeastern Maine and eastern Pennsylvania south to northern Georgia. Disjunct populations occur west to Ohio and south to the Gulf Coast. It is locally uncommon in southern New England, with Connecticut’s largest populations occurring in shallow wetlands near basalt (trap rock) ridges. Open shrubby or grassy areas along wooded swamps, fens, bogs, vernal pools, streams and ponds are the perfect habitat for this snake, though not a guarantee that any reside there.
The eastern ribbon snake is active from April to October after having hibernated among trap rock ridges, the gravel of railroad beds, or in other sheltered upland areas near its preferred wetland habitat. It grows up to 36 inches in length, averaging about 26 inches. (Females tend to be larger than males.) The female ribbon snake does not lay eggs, but gives birth to live young during July and August. The three to 20 young are born in a single litter and average about eight inches in length. They will reach maturity in two to three years.
This snake preys on frogs, salamanders, small fish, and invertebrates, such as insects and spiders. It swims along the surface of the water rather than diving and tends to avoid areas of deep water. A disturbance, such as your presence, will cause the ribbon snake to slide quickly into the water or to disappear through the shoreline vegetation. Very often all you will see is the last few inches of its very long tail as it makes a hasty retreat.
The ribbon snake is listed as a species of special concern in Connecticut. This designation is given to any native plant or animal species that has a naturally restricted range or habitat in the state, has a low population level or its population would be detrimentally affected by unregulated collection, or a species that has been extirpated from the state. Help to protect the ribbon snake by leaving it where you found it, and by preserving its wetland habitats.