Coral snakes sound like a friendly creature you might meet in a storybook fantasy land, but these creatures are highly venomous and dangerous. Found in both North America and Asia, these snakes rarely see humans, but if you do happen to cross their path, you may want to turn and run the other way.
Let’s learn more about this venomous snake, its bite and its different species.
Table of Contents
- 6 Coral Snake Characteristics
- Coral Snake Bite
- 4 Coral Snake Species
- 10 Interesting Facts about Coral Snakes
6 Coral Snake Characteristics
If you meet this iconic snake in the wild, would you even know it? It helps to have a better understanding of the snake’s appearance, behaviors and habitats, so you can accurately identify one in the wild.
There are two types of coral snakes: New World and Old World. There are 16 recognized species of the Old World coral snake and more than 65 recognized species of the New World coral snake.
1. Size and Appearance
Coral snakes vary in size depending on the species, but most are relatively small lengthwise. Species in North America are typically three feet long, but they can grow to be as long as five feet.
A coral snake’s appearance will largely depend on the species and where it is in the world. Coral snakes in North America are usually red and yellow with black banding. The red and yellow coloring serve as a warning sign that this snake is dangerous.
A famous snake rhyme helps identify dangerous coral snakes:
- Red and yellow, kill a fellow
- Red and black, friend of Jack
The coral snake’s appearance is very similar to other non-venomous snakes, which leads to some innocent, harmless snakes being killed out of fear. These species include the scarlet snake, the milk snake, the kingsnake, and the shovel-nose snake.
2. Bright Colors
The coral snake’s bright colors are its most defining feature. As we just mentioned, venomous species in North America have patterns with bright red and yellow coloring. But some species have elements of coral coloring, which can make them strikingly beautiful.
All species have eye-catching patterns with a bright color.
Coral snakes belong to the Elapidae family along with sea snakes, cobras and black mambas. There are more than 60 species of New World coral snakes (Leptomicrurus, Micrusus and Micruroides) and about 15 species of Old World coral snakes.
Where do coral snakes live? Do you have to worry about crossing paths with one while you’re hiking trails?
The good news is that these venomous snakes really don’t want anything to do with you. They prefer to live in isolated areas, like jungles and heavily forested areas. They also spend most of their time burrowed underground or hiding underneath brush when they’re not hunting.
Some species can be found in wooded areas and marshlands. Southeast American coral snakes live in the scrubby sandhills.
Western coral snakes are primarily found in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert and Northern Mexico. Just like their forest-loving cousins, these snakes live underneath rocks or burrow themselves into the sand. They can also be found in rocky areas of near cacti.
Experts say these snakes may also be found in suburban areas, but they have a secretive nature and stay well-hidden. Even if you do happen to find one in your yard, it’s more likely to flee than attack – unless you step on it, try to pick it up or back it into a corner (please don’t do any of these things).
Like most other snakes, the coral snake is a nocturnal creature, and it has a reclusive nature. As for their diets, these creatures don’t eat rodents like so many other snakes – they eat other reptiles. Their food of choice? Smooth-scaled snakes and lizards. They’ll eat frogs, too. But they really love black-headed or blind snakes.
6. Reproduction and Lifespan
Unlike most other venomous snakes, coral snakes lay eggs. They do not give birth to live young. In fact, coral snakes are the only venomous snakes in North America that don’t give live birth.
The number of eggs they lay will depend on the species. The western coral snake lays just two to three eggs, while the eastern coral snake lays six or seven. Eggs are laid in the summer and hatch in the fall.
Babies are independent from the moment they poke out of their eggs. Their scales are brightly colored from the get-go, and most are just seven inches in length. But don’t think it’s okay to handle a newborn coral snake – they’re fully venomous from birth.
The average lifespan of wild coral snakes is still unknown, but they can live up to seven years when in captivity.
Coral Snake Bite
The bite of coral snake can be deadly, but there have been no reported deaths in North America in more than four decades. These impressive coral snakes are unlike other venomous snakes in so many ways. Aside from reproduction, these snakes are also different in the fact that they can’t contract their fangs.
The coral snake’s fangs are always out and erect. But their fangs are weak compared to other snakes. Because their fixed venomous fangs are so small, they have a hard time puncturing human skin through thick boots and clothing. They don’t carry too much venom in their fangs, so they often hold onto their prey until death sets in.
What’s interesting about these snakes is that they don’t just bite down, inject their venom and wait for their victims to die – they deliver their venom using a chewing motion. The last reported death from a coral snake was in the 1960s, and that’s when scientists developed the antivenin for this creature. There have been no reported deaths from the western coral snake ever.
With that said, the bite of a coral snake can be extremely painful. If left untreated, a bite can lead to cardiac arrest. The coral snake has neurotoxic venom that can cause respiratory failure and paralysis. In humans, it can take hours for symptoms to start appearing. Humans are also less likely to experience swelling or pain from a coral snake bite.
Because pain and symptoms aren’t immediately apparent, humans may not know that they’ve been bit for quite some time. If left untreated, the venom will eventually cause double vision, slurred speech and muscular paralysis.
In the near future, there may not be any antivenin treatments available for coral snakes. Bites from these snakes are extremely rare and the cost of producing and maintaining antivenin is quite high. As of 2012, production of coral snake antivenom has ceased. In other words – you better start stocking up on coral snake repellents if you plan to venture into their territory.
4 Coral Snake Species
There are dozens of coral snake species, and they’re all impressive in their own way. They don’t all carry the standard coral snake look, but they are similar in size and have the same habits.
1. Eastern Coral Snake
Micrurus fulvius, better known as the eastern coral snake, can be found as far north as North Carolina, as far south as Florida and as far west as Texas.
This species is the brightest of all coral snakes. Its entire body features bright bands of red, yellow and black. The yellow bands are narrower and separate the alternating bands of black and red.
The snout of the snake features a bright yellow band, and the tail has rings of yellow and black – no red.
The eastern coral snake is typically between 31″ and 48″ in length. The tails of males are longer than females, but females are longer overall.
As far as diet goes, these snakes love to munch on frogs, lizards and other small snakes.
2. Western or Arizona Coral Snake
The Arizona, or western, coral snake is slender, striking and shy. They only grow to be between 13″ and 21″ in length, which is a fitting size for a snake that likes to hide and burrow.
These snakes have brightly colored bands of red and black, which are separated by narrower bands of white. Their snouts are blunt, and their heads are black to just behind the eyes.
The Arizona coral snake is found not only in Arizona (southern regions), but also in New Mexico and in some parts of western Mexico. They prefer desert-scrub, thorn-scrub, grassland, woodland and farmland. They’re often found in rocky areas, as they like to live underneath rocks.
The western coral snake prefers to eat black-headed and blind snakes. They may eat lizards and other small snakes as well. Like other coral snake species, they hunt at night, but they may be active during the day after a good rain storm, or if it’s an overcast day.
3. Blue Malayan Coral Snake
The Blue Malayan coral snake is just as beautiful as it sounds, with a dark blue body, white stripes on its sides, and a beautiful coral-colored tail and head.
These snakes are not found in North America, and are native to Southeast Asia. The Blue Malayan is found in Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, Burma and Thailand.
Despite being native to Asia, this snake is still considered a New World coral snake.
It has a medium-sized, slender body and can grow to be as long as 1.8 meters.
Like other coral snakes, the Blue Malayan is highly venomous, but rarely causes human deaths. This particular species has extra-long venom glands that span one-fourth of the snake’s body.
Unlike other corals, the Blue Malayan’s venom is not neurotoxic. It contains a cytotoxin that destroys muscle tissue, which leads to inflammation, hypotension and other serious symptoms.
4. Coral Snakes in the Orient
There are several species of coral snakes in the Orient, including:
- Beddome’s Coral Snake
Named after Richard Henry Beddome, this snake is native to India. It prefers to live in dry deciduous and semi-evergreen areas.
- Bibron’s Coral Snake
Also native to India, Bibron’s coral snake is named after French zoologist Gabriel Bibron and is found mostly in the Western Ghats. These snakes are small in size with thick bands of red and narrower bands of black.
- Blood-Bellied Coral Snake
Native to Sri Lanka, the blood-bellied coral snake lays three eggs at a time and is found in the area stretching from Wasgamuwa to Rattota.
- Macclelland’s Coral Snake
Native to eastern and southern Asia, this coral snake only grows to be 16-31 inches long and has a thin body. Its body features bands of red with black crossbars. Its belly is a creamy white color.
10 Interesting Facts about Coral Snakes
1. Coral snakes are secretive and reclusive, but they will defend themselves if necessary. These strikingly beautiful snakes are interesting in so many ways.
2. When they go on the defensive, corals will coil up and use their tail to confuse the attacker as to which end is its head.
3. Coral snakes bite and hold onto their victims when hunting. The longer they keep their fangs in their prey, the more venom they inject.
4. The coral snake is actually a member of the cobra family, and they have the second-strongest venom of all snakes.
5. It takes between two and three months for coral snake eggs to hatch.
6. Like cobras, mambas, kraits and taipans, coral snakes are front-fanged and not rear-fanged.
7. The coral snake’s fangs are so small that they’re difficult to see.
8. It’s a common misconception that these snakes have to chew to inject venom. They can inject venom with a simple bite, but often chew to keep their prey in place and inject even more venom.
9. While the coral snake rhyme is helpful, it’s not 100% reliable. The Texas coral snake, for example, is black with bands of yellow that get increasingly narrow as they move down the body. Some other coral snakes in Texas are white with yellow bands and spotted red bands. Some eastern coral snakes have spots and not bands. Others are just black and white with coral-colored tails and heads.
10. The best way to avoid getting bit by a coral snake is to leave it alone. That goes for any snake in the wild. It’s difficult to tell whether a snake is venomous until it’s too late. Don’t attempt to handle or threaten any wild snake.