Lust & Passion: Red-Sided Garter Snake


Above: A massive ball of Red-sided Garter Snakes mating

William Shakespeare wrote “love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.” Courtship among the red-sided garter snakes, Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis which are found in Canada and North America, could well be a reflection of this quote; one which often turns out to be a game blinded by passion.

Here’s a video of their mating behaviour:

During the cold winter months, the red-sided garter snake hibernates underground. Those who survived the cold will emerge slowly from their hibernation. With every movement, the snake’s body warms up and this is when things start to get “heated up”. Similarly, the female red-sided garter snake arises from her deep slumber. However, as she warms her body, an eager crowd of males awaits impatiently for their prospective mate, attentively seeking the scent of a nearby female. Pheromones trails given off by the female acts just like a love potion luring its target. “These pheromones are produced in the skin of the dorsal surface”. (Mason, 1993: pg 262) This creates an astounding sight where up to a hundred male garter snakes vie lustfully for the available female forming a massive ball of entangled web of passion and lust.

Interestingly, these routine competitions have encouraged certain individuals to adapt tactics that trick other male garter snakes into believing it is a female. In such cases, the pseudo-female snake mimics the same pheromone scent of a genuine female which would attract the other desperate males. This tactic is especially useful when a male’s cold body impedes its movement hence making it difficult to compete with a fast and sexually active male. This pseudo-female would then be able to lure “blinded” males to mate with him. At the same time, it makes use of the hordes of males to speed up the warming in its own body, therefore having better chances to mate with a female garter snake. According to BBC’s life series as mentioned in the video, the red-sided garter snakes’ mating fiasco is known to be the biggest number of gatherings by any reptile in the world. However, it brings to mind the phrase, “blinded by love” literally but who can blame them when these snakes are both morphologically and anatomically undistinguishable. (Mason, 1993: pg 264)


“The Red-Sided Garter-Attenborough – BBC’s Life,” by Globalzoo. Youtube channel, 22 Jan 2010. URL: (Accessed April 4, 2010)

Mason R T, 1993. Chemical Ecology of the Red-Sided Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis.Brain, Behaviour and Evolution, 41: 261-268

“30 Strangest Animal Mating Habits,” by Dig a List, 2008. URL: (Accessed April 4, 2010)

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