One of the most famous and most misidentified snakes is the coral snake. Coral snakes can be extremely dangerous due to their highly toxic venom, so knowing how to identify and distinguish a coral snake from other snakes can be critical when you come across one. Don’t let the myths about these snakes fool you. Coral snakes can look very inconsistent with the well-known rhyme.
What would a coral snake’s species profile look like? Coral snakes are small snakes with red, black, and yellow banding all along their bodies. They have small heads that can easily be confused with their tails. They are also venomous and have short fangs. Despite their small size, they need to be approached cautiously due to the toxicity of their venom.
A common rhyme to help distinguish coral snakes from other snakes goes something like, “Red to yellow, kill a fellow. Red to black, venom lack.” Though this is helpful in most instances, some variants of coral snakes do not match up to the rhyme as well as others. There are plenty of other characteristics that help distinguish coral snakes from other snakes. Check them out below.
Color and Pattern
Coral snakes are most known for their red, black, and yellow banding down the whole body, which gives us the helpful rhyme mentioned before. This coloring is consistent with at least most of the coral snakes in the United States. However, once outside of the United States (US), coral snakes can vary somewhat in color and pattern and even within the US the rhyme isn’t 100% tried and true.
In some coral snakes, the yellow banding is less obvious on coral snakes if it is there at all. This makes the coral snake appear only red and black and therefore looks like a different species. There are also genetic conditions in coral snakes that can make them almost completely black (called melanism) or have almost no black (called albinism) in their patterns. Some coral snakes just have completely irregular patterns, like being almost entirely red, so if the pattern is unrecognizable, check some of the other features of the snake before assuming it isn’t a coral snake.
Coral snakes outside of the US can be even less consistent. In South America, some coral snakes are often some combination of white, black, and red. In Asia, they have the Blue Malayan coral snake which is all bright blue with light stripes down the sides and a red head and tail.
The colors and patterns of coral snakes are extremely inconsistent, so pattern alone is not a reliable identifier for these snakes. If you aren’t sure if the snake in front of you is a coral snake or not, just don’t touch it. It is the safest way to handle these snakes.
Other Distinctive Features
Aside from the pattern, coral snakes have other features that are more consistent throughout the species. Frequently noted is the head shape. Coral snakes have a slightly bulbous, rounded head that is hardly distinct from the body. Because the head is so small, it can be confused with the tail. Other animals in particular find this characteristic confusing.
Snake often have two possible kinds of pupils. The coral snake has round pupils, but some snakes will have an elliptical pupil that looks like a cat’s. If you know what kind of pupil the snake has in its eyes, it can be a help in identifying the snake.
These snakes also have short fangs that make it difficult to bite through anything that is very thick. These fangs cannot be contracted, so their fangs are always out in their mouths. The size of the fangs makes them fairly weak compared to other snakes. This doesn’t prevent them from causing injury though. The venom is injected through the fangs when the snake bites. Despite being venomous, coral snakes are not pit vipers like rattlesnakes or copperheads. This means that they do not have the pit organs that help pick up thermal movements.
Coral snakes are small snakes, ranging from 18-20 inches. Not only are they relatively short, but they can also be extremely skinny, even as thin as a pencil. Don’t let the size fool you. These snakes are still extremely dangerous.
Coral snakes are not social creatures. They typically hide from humans, and pretty much every other creature, and can be hard to find. If a person is bitten by a coral snake, it is usually more a result of the human provoking or stepping on the snake than it is the snake’s aggressiveness. When it comes to humans, coral snakes would rather avoid than attack.
When a coral snake hides, it usually does so in the ground or under leaves and other undergrowth. They really don’t like to be spotted. This tendency to hide makes sense when it comes to survival because these snakes have bright coloring that makes them stand out in the open. Though this coloring can be a clear warning to other creatures to stay away, hiding helps them to simply avoid various predators.
If the coral snake does face a predator, it will curl up or burrow its head in the ground and may raise its tail in the air. Because the head and tail are easily confused, the predator is uncertain if it is facing the head or the tail. If it is facing the tail of the coral snake, it may think it is actually the head and may try to attack what it thinks is the tail but is actually the head. This allows the coral snake to have an attack advantage over the predator.
Common Locations and Habitat
Coral snakes are found in two general areas: Asia and the Americas, mostly in the tropic or subtropic regions. Western coral snakes can be found in deserts in the US as well. As explained before, the appearance of the coral snake can vary dramatically between different locations and habitats, so it is good to be aware of the typical appearance of the coral snake in your region.
In the United States, the coral snake commonly lives in desert areas like Arizona or Texas, marshy areas like Florida. Basically, they like places that allow them to burrow in the ground or under leaves. If they can be hidden, they are happy.
Outside the US, the coral snake will live in similar areas or it will live in a jungle setting. Again, this kind of habitat is ideal for a coral snake because there are plenty of places to burrow and hide. Because coral snakes like being hidden underground so much, it is unlikely to see them climbing in higher places like tree branches.
Coral snakes are generally nocturnal. If they are seen, it is often when they come out to hunt at night. Some seasons of the year bring them out of their burrows more than others, particularly spring.
Coral snakes are carnivores. They do not eat insects like crickets. Mostly, they eat small amphibians, like frogs, or reptiles, like lizards. Coral snakes are also known to eat other snakes. Of course, anything coral snakes eat will be small as they themselves are small creatures. In general, snakes can’t eat something that is bigger than their head is wide. This means that they probably can’t eat things like full-grown mice.
Snakes give birth in two ways: live birth and egg birth. Most venomous snakes have live births, but coral snakes lay eggs instead. This makes them especially unique in the US because they are the only venomous snakes in North America that do lay eggs.
Coral snakes like to be solitary most of the time, but during mating season they use pheromones and other scents to help them locate another coral snake of the opposite gender. Once they find their mate, the courtship and mating is not elaborate.
After mating, if the female becomes pregnant, she will lay 6-7 eggs after the gestation period. The gestation period varies depending on several internal and external factors, but once the eggs are ready to be laid, the female will lay them in a shallow hole and cover them. Often, the eggs are laid in the summer and hatch in the fall.
When the eggs hatch, the baby coral snakes are about 7 inches long. Even as infants, they are still venomous and have the same coloring as an adult coral snake.
It is not encouraged to keep a coral snake as a pet, however, some have been kept in captivity. Do not take a coral snake into captivity unless you are well-trained with snakes and very capable of caring for it and yourself if the snake attacks.
Coral snakes are tricky to care for. They need a different sort of environment from snakes that are more common as pets, like pythons. Coral snakes love and need to burrow, so they need a lot of substrate in their enclosure. Things like peat moss work well for them. They also like things like bark to hide under. You can keep some of the substrate damp, but make sure it stays clean as well. Coral snakes do not need climbing branches like other snakes.
Don’t give the coral snake extra light during the day. Because it is nocturnal, it doesn’t need light the same way other snakes may. Despite this, it is still important to maintain a warm and humid atmosphere for the snake. Keeping the enclosure around 85 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal. At night the temperature can drop into the upper 60’s, but no lower.
The coral snake will also need a low, always clean water dish. It really needs to be shallow so the snake can’t drown in it. Some coral snakes will learn to eat pinkie mice, but for the most part, they will only eat small snakes and lizards. Don’t try to force them to eat other foods as this could disrupt their diet and health.
Again, these snakes are not social. They do not want a lot of handling or attention. The best way to get along with a coral snake is to give it its space and leave it alone a lot. You may be able to interact with the coral snake if you use a snakehook, but most will not like it much if they cooperate at all. It is entirely possible that the coral snake will try to escape from a snakehook, so make sure it is tight enough around the snake to prevent escape.
Remember, coral snakes do not make good pets and should only be kept in captivity by those few people who are trained and capable of handling such a dangerous snake. Disregarding this could lead to serious injury or even death, so be extremely careful if you even come into near contact with a coral snake.
For more explanation on caring for coral snakes, check out this link.
Bite Symptoms and Treatment
A common myth about coral snakes is that they make a chewing motion when they bite so that their short fangs can inject venom into their prey. However, this is not true. Even if the coral snake only gets a quick bite in, the venom is easily introduced into the creature that was bitten. So if you are bitten only briefly by a coral snake, you will still need to seek medical attention quickly.
Initially, the bite from a coral snake won’t seem like a big deal. The area around the bite does not become itchy or inflamed. You will simply have puncture wounds from the fangs. The venom has been introduced into your body though, and as it moves throughout your body, the effects of it will become more obvious. Be aware that though it may take up to 12 hours before you see symptoms of the venom in your body, it is better to seek medical attention as quickly as possible.
The venom of a coral snake can cause several severe, even deadly, symptoms. Once the effects start to become clear, a person may experience double vision or slurred speech. These minor symptoms can quickly progress into respiratory failure, paralysis, and cardiac arrest. These symptoms can kill a person.
An antivenom for coral snake venom has been manufactured and is being produced. It can be very effective and has saved thousands of lives. The antivenom was developed in the 1960’s and since then there have been very few cases of death from coral snake venom. Usually when the person died, it was because they did not seek medical attention for the bite, resulting in the venom overpowering their body.
The antivenom has been extremely successful and continues to be so. If you are bitten by a coral snake, the antivenom is likely to save your life.
Though there are many snakes that look like coral snakes, these three are particularly notable for their likenesses. Some of these snakes are not venomous or as harmful as the coral snake. These are snakes you don’t want to confuse with the coral snake:
- Shovel-nosed Snake – This snake has red and yellow bands together between black bands, like the coral snake. However, the red bands are limited to the back of the snake and do not circle around the entire body.
- Scarlet Kingsnake – This is one of the snakes most easy to confuse with the coral snake. The pattern is a good giveaway though. The yellow band on the scarlet kingsnake only touches black, not red (the rhyme could be relevant here). Its pattern is primarily a survival tactic to make predators confuse it with the coral snake. This snake is also non-venomous.
- Florida Scarlet Snake – This snake also has a similar banding pattern, but the bands don’t circle the body and are more splotchy. The florida scarlet snake also has a red head and an upturned nose, unlike the coral snake.
Is the coral snake the most toxic snake? This question is difficult to answer because it depends on how one measures the venom. To put it simply, the coral snake’s venom is one of the most dangerous venoms drop-by-drop, but it only produces a small amount of venom at a time. Other snakes, though less toxic with an equivalent amount of venom, can produce a lot more venom than a coral snake.
What snakes are related to the coral snake? The coral snake is part of the same family as cobras and mambas. They are all elapid snakes and are generally found in tropic and subtropic areas.
What do you do if you are bitten by a venomous snake? The best thing to do when you or someone you are with is bitten is to apply pressure to the wound and stay calm. Panicking will not help the situation whatsoever. Be sure to seek medical attention as quickly as possible. Try not to wipe off the bite because there might be venom that can help identify the type of snake. There are a lot of myths about dealing with snake bites, so just to be clear, do NOT make a tourniquet or try to suck the venom out.