A Texas coral snake (Micrurus tener tener) showing its characteristic red-yellow-black banding pattern. While generally shy and nonconfrontational, the snake's neurotoxic venom can produce extreme pain, and even death.
Credit: National Natural Toxins Research Center at Texas A&M University-Kingsville
Coral snakes are small, vibrantly colored, highly poisonous snakes found in Asia and in the Americas. They have the second-strongest venom of any snake (the black mamba has the most deadly venom), but they are generally considered less dangerous than rattlesnakes. This is because coral snakes have a less effective poison-delivery system than their rattling cousins.
Their bright coloring serves a warning to predators, but if they are provoked, these snakes will bury their heads in their coiled bodies and raise their tails — which looks quite similar to their heads. They will then make a popping sound with their cloacas to startle the threat. The cloaca is basically the snake's sphincter, so the sound it makes is essentially a fart.
Coral snakes are slender and small, typically between 18 and 20 inches long (45 to 50 centimeters), with some species reaching 3 feet (1 meter). They can be as skinny as a pencil. They have bulbous, almost-neckless heads, rounded noses and similar-looking tails, meaning that it can be hard to tell a snake’s head from its tail.
Unlike other poisonous snakes, the coral snake cannot contract its fangs into its mouth. Instead, they are constantly out and erect. Their fangs are relatively weak.
Coral snakes have smooth scales and round pupils. While only some species have elements of coral coloring, all species have eye-catching patterns and colors. The following are descriptions of the most typical or impressive coral snakes:
Eastern Coral Snake
Ranging from North Carolina to Florida and Texas, this is the brightest of North American coral snakes. Its body is entirely covered in bright bands of black, red and yellow. Narrow bright yellow rings separate wider red and black rings. There is a yellow ring behind the snake’s black snout. The tail is ringed in black and yellow, with no red.
Western or Arizona Coral Snake
This Southwestern North American snake has the same basic color pattern as its eastern counterpart, though the colors are slightly muted. The yellow bands, especially, are paler, and can be nearly white. They are also wider than the Eastern coral snake’s yellow bands.
Blue Malayan Coral Snake
This stunning snake lives in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Unlike its North American cousins, it does not have bands. Instead, it has a deep blue body with light blue or white stripes on each side, and a gorgeous, coral-red head and tail.
Coral snake rhyme
Because of the coral snake's dangerous reputation, many nonpoisonous snakes disguise themselves as coral snakes by having similar body patterns. As a result, a popular rhyme was penned so that people could tell the difference between coral snakes and nonpoisonous snakes in their region. The rhyme goes:
Red and yellow, can kill a fellow;
Red and black, friend of Jack.
This refers to how the coral snake's red bands are flanked by yellow bands.
Unfortunately, the rhyme is not always accurate, especially in the Southwest. There are several species of nonpoisonous snakes that have yellow bands touching red bands, so the best way to identify a coral snake is by its head, which is blunt and black to behind the eyes, and its bands that completely circle the body instead of breaking at the belly. [Image Gallery: Snakes of the World]
Coral snakes that live in forested or jungle areas spend most of their time burrowed underground or in leaf piles. They like marshy and wooded areas, but also live in the scrubby sandhills of the Southeast United States.
Western coral snakes live primarily in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Northern Mexico. They like to live under rocks or burrow into sand or soil, and are often found in the rocky areas around Saguaro cacti.
Because of their secretive habits, they may be found in suburban areas.
Coral snakes are nocturnal and reclusive. They spend most of their time keeping cozy in burrows or under rocks or rotting leaves. They are most commonly seen in the spring and fall. These snakes are shy and will often flee from predators.
Coral snakes eat lizards and other small, smoothed-scaled snakes. Eastern coral snakes will eat frogs, and Western coral snakes are particularly fond of devouring blind or black-headed snakes.
Unlike many other poisonous snakes that birth live young, coral snakes lay eggs. They are the only venomous snakes in North America to do so. Eastern coral snakes lay six or seven eggs in the summer that hatch in early fall. Western coral snakes lay two to three eggs. Babies are born brightly colored, fully venomous, and 7 inches (17 cm) long.
Though their venom is highly toxic, no deaths from coral snake bites have been reported in North America since the late 1960s, when antivenom was developed. No deaths from a Western coral snake have been reported at all. Nevertheless, their bites can be extremely painful and, if left untreated, can lead to cardiac arrest.
Coral snakes’ small, fixed fangs and small mouth mean that it is difficult for them to puncture human skin — let alone leather boots. Humans are mostly bitten when trying to pick up a coral snake. Because of their small size, these snakes don’t carry much venom in their fangs, so they may try to hold onto their victim for some time. Coral snakes may chew on their victims while biting, though they do not need to chew to inject their venom.
The snake’s neurotoxic venom causes rapid paralysis and respiratory failure in its prey; however, it can take up to 12 hours for symptoms to appear in humans. Additionally, there is often little or no pain or swelling in humans from a coral snake bite. If untreated by antivenom, however, symptoms will take effect. They include slurred speech, double vision, and muscular paralysis.