Eastern Coral Snake

Last week, I posted a scarlet snake and compared it to the similar-looking coral snake. Here’s what a real coral snake looks like. The most visible differences: the nose is black, and the red and yellow bands touch. People in parts of the US where this snake lives (and sometimes where it doesn’t!) grow up hearing this rhyme:

Red and yellow, kill a fellow.
Red and black, friend of Jack.

There are variations — a more sensical one ends “poison lack” — but the one above is the one I learned as a child in West Virginia, which is well outside of the coral snake’s range. Where my parents, who came from Pennsylvania, learned it is anyone’s guess.

The black head is less definitive — some kingsnakes have black heads. But the red and yellow bands still don’t touch.

Coral snakes are venomous, but they’re not closely related to the other venomous snakes in North America, the pit vipers (rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads). They have a different type of venom, and they don’t have the big front fangs the pit vipers do. And unlike pit vipers, coral snakes lay eggs.

Their venom is very toxic, but they’re not much of a threat to humans. Their small fangs are not very good for injecting venom, so they don’t just strike and let go like a rattlesnake. They hold on and chew, and the only time that’s likely to happen is if you pick them up. I don’t recommend picking them up. Or standing on them while wearing flip-flops. Otherwise, you can safely watch them from a few feet away.

This species lives in the southeast coastal plain, from eastern NC south to FL and then west around the Gulf of Mexico. Other species live further south, but they don’t have the same pattern. If you’re outside the US, don’t trust the “red and yellow” rule!

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Eastern Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius)

So here’s a question for readers: If you live somewhere with venomous and non-venomous animals that look similar, what tricks do you use to quickly identify which are dangerous?

(Correction: I had stated that there was only one species of coral snake in the US. That’s wrong, there are others in the Southwest. This is just the only coral snake species in the Eastern United States.)

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Bethany Harvey

I’m a biologist, environmental educator, occasional firefighter and reluctant cubicle monkey living in North Carolina. I write literary short stories and SFF novels, and hope to someday figure out why it doesn’t work the other way around. You can find me yelling about politics on Twitter (@bethanyharvey) or about under-appreciated wildlife at OverlookedNature.com.

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