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!

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.)


The cottonmouth, also known as the water moccasin, may be the most feared animal in the eastern United States. People panic about cottonmouths in areas where cottonmouths don’t even live. Growing up in West Virginia, which is decidedly outside the cottonmouth’s range, I was told by several people that they had killed or been chased by “moccasins” in the creeks. This was highly unlikely.

Some of the fear is justified: cottonmouths are venomous, and they’re more common than the larger diamondback and timber rattlesnakes, with more venom than the smaller pigmy rattlesnakes and copperheads. Either way you’re ranking threat level — number of bites or seriousness of bites — the cottonmouth falls somewhere in the middle.

So, why do they have such a bad reputation? One possibility is mistaken identity. The Nerodia genus of non-venomous water snakes can be found pretty much anywhere with fresh water, and they are often misidentified as cottonmouths. They’re both fairly large, heavy-bodied, dark-colored snakes usually found near water; it’s an understandable mistake. After all, who wants to get up close and check the shape of the pupil or the color of the inside of the mouth?

Continue reading Cottonmouth