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What is a Coral Snake?

By Anna B. Smith
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The coral snake is a poisonous snake indigenous to North America. It is roughly 20 inches (50.8 cm) long and is brightly colored, presenting a banded red, yellow, and black skin pattern. Many non-poisonous snakes look similar but not identical in color to the coral snake, and generally do not bite when approached. A simple children’s rhyme often used to help hikers and gardeners discern between the dangerous coral snake and its many look-alikes is “Red on black, friend of Jack; red on yellow, kill a fellow.” This rhyme refers to the order of color on the banding around the snake.

The coral snake is typically nocturnal, hunting mostly at night, and makes its home underground and within deep crevices. It has a small mouth and hollow fangs for delivering poison, but typically cannot bite through thick layers of clothing. Their bite delivers a small amount of neurotoxin which interferes with brain to muscle communication. When the bite pierces skin, victims typically will experience blurred vision and increased difficulty in breathing. Once bitten, victims typically require an immediate dosage of antivenin and sometimes artificial respiratory devices as well, until the poison is removed from the system. Though their bite is dangerous, this type of snake is usually non-aggressive and prefers to hide or warn larger creatures when they stray too close to the snake’s nesting area. When startled or threatened, a coral snake will hide its head out of sight and shake its tail, emitting a popping sound to alert intruders.

There are three types of coral snakes found in North America: Eastern coral snakes, which lives in the Coastal Plain between North Carolina and Louisiana; Texas coral snakes, which lives in central south Texas; and Arizona coral snakes, which lives in the southeast portion of the state and in portions of Mexico. These snakes prefer the warm climate and humidity of the coastal flood zones, and may be found in pine or scrub oak stands as well as under leaf piles. They are distantly related to the sea snake and the mamba, two highly poisonous snakes of the Pacific Ocean and Africa.

Coral snakes primarily eat small lizards, small snakes, frogs, and rodents. Like other poisonous snakes, they swallow their victims whole. The venom of the coral snake paralyzes its small prey, allowing the snake to maintain its grip as the animal gradually loses the ability to struggle. It then locates the animal’s head and, using its backward-facing teeth, forces it gradually down the throat. Digestion may occur for the following two to three days, provided the snake can achieve a high body temperature. Snakes may often be found lying in the sunshine after swallowing prey to encourage digestion.

This type of snake reproduces by laying eggs during the summer, typically in a clutch of two to eighteen eggs. It is the only poisonous snake in North America that does not lay live young. Female snakes do not remain with their young to care for them. The egg and yolk contain all the nutrition a young snake will need during development and early life outside the egg.

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Discussion Comments
By Pippinwhite — On Jan 24, 2014

The biggest advantage of coral snakes is they are not common. People on the Gulf Coast may go their entire lives without seeing one. Also, as the article says, they are not aggressive, unlike some of their larger elapid cousins. Their first instinct is always to flee rather than stand their ground. Plus, their fangs are small and don't penetrate leather very well. So, while they do have a potent venom, bites are extremely uncommon.

This doesn't mean a coral snake should be taken for granted, however. As with all snakes, avoidance is the best policy. Snakes in their native habitat should be left strictly in the wild to do the jobs they were intended to do

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