Only 4 families of venomous snakes exist in the United States. These are the rattlesnakes, Copperheads, Water Moccasins (Cotton Mouths), and the Coral snakes. For the purpose of this article, we will concentrate on Coral Snakes and some of their similar looking, yet harmless relatives.
You’ve probably heard some variation of the old saying, “Red next to yellow kills a fellow. Red next to black is a friend to Jack”. If only Jack was compelled to return the favor once in a while, we would have a lot less hacked-up serpents. However, the phrase is intended to be a quick rhyme to help folks identify if a snake is venomous or harmless, and for the “most part” it works in the United States. There are however, a few exceptions to the rule, which we will address toward the end. Our intention with this article, is to help people be able to better identify snakes they see in the wild, and to know which ones to avoid, and those that should be appreciated, and then left to go on their way.
Many would agree, and the pet industry would support the thought, that tri-color (banded with three colors) snakes are amongst the most beautiful serpents in our country. Their colors can be so vibrant as to almost seem jewel-like. These snakes, taking the exact opposite approach to their camouflage-expert cousins, would seem more at home in a candy store, than in their native habitat. These ultra-bright colors, however, are one of nature’s ways of saying, “Stay Away”!
Of course we know that Coral snakes have the fangs and venom to back up that statement, but what of the so-called mimics? There is still much debate regarding “mimics” and the benefits of being brightly colored, but the most common assumption, is that these critters are copy-cats, hoping to avoid predation by assuming the color pattern of their notoriously toxic cousins.
Who to watch out for: “Red next to Yellow, kills a fellow.”
There are only three types of Coral Snake in the United States and they all look quite similar (to the lay person), while being somewhat easily identifiable. Perhaps one of the best ways to know if you might run into a Coral snake, is by knowing where they live. The map below shows the natural range of our native Coral snakes. If you don’t live within one of the highlighted areas, you can rest assured that you won’t run into one of these critters in your back yard.
The three “culprits” as indicated on this map, are the Eastern Coral, the Texas Coral and the Arizona Coral snakes. Coral snakes belong to the infamous Elapid family, which is home to snakes like Cobras, Mambas and Sea Snakes. Elapid venom is drop-for-drop, the most toxic of all snake venoms. It is predominately neurotoxic meaning that it attacks the nervous system and will typically kill its victims by paralyzing the breathing muscles, resulting in asphyxiation.
Unfortunately, there are at least a couple of very common myths about Coral snake bites that we want to address. You may have heard that Coral snakes have very small mouths, and can only bite you on the webbing between your fingers. This is absolutely not true. If you pick up one of these snakes, it will potentially bite any part of your body within reach. Another common myth that needs to go away, is that Coral snakes are “rear-fanged” with tiny teeth, requiring them to “chew” on you to inject any venom. Not only are Coral snake fangs located in the front of their mouths, as is the case with all Elapids, but they do not have to chew on you to inject venom. Although their fangs are small, they are long enough to break the skin, which allows their venom to enter your blood stream.
While on the unfortunate topic of bites, it should be noted, that Coral snake bites are often no more painful than the bite of a harmless snake, but please don’t let that fool you into thinking that you escaped envenomation. There are quite a few cases in which symptoms of envenomation have not presented themselves immediately. It is therefore extremely important that you treat any potential Coral snake bite as an emergency, and seek immediate medical attention.
As scary as that sounds, these snakes should be respected, not feared. Our native Corals are relatively small, shy and reclusive. They are fossorial, spending most of their time underground or under cover, and will avoid human contact at all costs. Although these snakes have the potential to deliver a lethal bite, they have smaller fangs and a fairly poor delivery system compared to the pit vipers that inhabit our country. Contrary to many beliefs, Coral snakes are never aggressive, and will only bite a person when threatened. Though a few legitimate accidents have occurred, these bites happen almost exclusively when the snakes are harassed and picked up.
Despite these facts, Coral Snakes are obviously best left alone. If you are lucky enough to see one in the wild, you should appreciate its beauty from a distance, and as long as it is not remarkably close to urbanization, allow it to continue on its way. Statistics have proven that you put yourself at significantly greater risk of being bitten, if you try to catch or kill the snake, than if you simply let it crawl away. If you find a snake that absolutely needs to be removed, please call a professional in your area.
Though there are some exceptions, Coral snakes are best identified by pattern. They have a solid black face, followed by a broad yellow stripe. The red, yellow, and black bands go all the way around the body, as opposed to King and Milk snakes, which have banding that stops when it reaches the belly scales. As the saying goes, Corals also have red bands surrounded on both sides by yellow bands. As burrowers, Coral snakes have very small eyes that are solid black and hard to discern from a distance greater than a few feet. Here are examples of the three Coral snakes species that inhabit the United States.
This is one of our all-time favorite snake in the United States. They simply don’t get any more beautiful than this! We photographed this specimen in Southern Arizona in 2010. Although it was very flighty, it endured being photographed well and was not at all inclined to bite. You will notice that the “yellow” bands on this Arizona Coral are more of a cream color, as opposed to a bright yellow, which is common in this species. A human fatality has never been attributed to an Arizona Coral snake bite. They are considered the least medically significant of coral snake bites in our country. An interesting side note is that this handsome species has a very specialized diet. This snake is ophiophagus, meaning that it eats other snakes almost exclusively!
One very unique characteristic of this specific serpent, is a defensive mechanism. When threatened or handled, the Arizona Coral snake “farts”! This rare behavior in the snake kingdom is called cloacal popping. It does not actually emit gas, but everts the lining of its cloaca, making a popping sound in hopes to attract the attention of its predator toward its tail, and away from its fragile head.
Eastern Coral Snake – (Micrurus fulvius)
Though just as beautiful, the Eastern Coral snake is not usually as vividly or cleanly colored as the Arizona species. They are however, the most toxic of the U.S. Corals. The color sequence (other than the black band just behind the head) is identical to the Arizona Coral, but their banding is often interrupted by black speckling (pitting) on their yellow and red scales, making them look a bit darker overall. These snakes eat frogs, lizards and other small snakes. As with all U.S. snakes, humans are not on their menu, and they will therefore only bite a person if disturbed or handled.
Though the Eastern Coral snake is responsible for a handful of bites each year, these bites have only resulted in two fatalities prior to the creation of antivenin in the 1960’s. Since antivenin for this species has been available there has been only one recorded death attributed to this snake, back in 2009. The victim however, failed to seek any medical treatment for the bite, and died several hours after being bitten.
Texas Coral Snake (Micrurus tener)
The Texas Coral Snake is very closely related to the Eastern Coral and up until recently was considered the same species. As such close relatives, they have very similar behavior and looks.
One very notable fact to consider when dealing with any U.S. Coral snake, is that production of Coral Snake antivenin (Coralmyn) was stopped and the remaining stock of this antivenom expired in 2010. Ongoing tests have since lead to several extensions on the expiration date, but medical facilities in Florida have recently announced that they have very few vials of the serum left. Because there are so few Coral snake bites, the serum was deemed too expensive to produce, which adds to the risk of new bite victims. There is an effective antivenom available from South America, but so far the FDA refuses to allow it to be imported. In July of 2015, it was reported that the U.S. is looking into a new Coral snake antivenin.
As safe as they are beautiful: “Red touches black is a friend to Jack!”
As previously stated, not all red, yellow (cream or even white) and black snakes are dangerous. Most of them are completely harmless and are even readily available in the pet trade. Though over-collection, urbanization and the senseless killing of these animals by snake-hating zealots makes them harder to find these days, you still may strike it lucky and get to see one of these amazing creatures in the wild. The inherent “rarity” of these snakes makes many of them illegal to kill, catch or collect without a license issued by the state in which they are found. Therefore, it is still best to observe these harmless critters in their natural environment, snap some photos and let them go.
The Scarlet Kingsnake lives alongside the Eastern Coral and is one of the most commonly confused “look-a-likes”. You will however, notice that the red bands touch black and that the head is red instead of black.
There are several different varieties of Milk snakes around the country, and most of them look fairly similar. You’ll notice that like the Coral Snake, the Milk snake does have a black head, but true to the saying, the red bands are surrounded by black.
Grey-bands are native to Texas and New Mexico. Although they are tri-colored, they have gray stripes instead of white or yellow.
California Mountain Kingsnake
These great looking snakes have a solid black head as well, and are often confused with the venomous Coral Snake, but don’t range anywhere close to Corals and again, have red bands surrounded by black.
Hopefully by now, you are starting to get the idea that most of these harmless critters don’t look too much like their venomous cousins. The uneducated person might easily make the mistake, but just a little bit of research goes a long way.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, this common saying that people use to identify a harmless snake from a Coral snake, is not foolproof. Because of this, many snake enthusiasts and herpetologists would like to eliminate the saying, and often condemn those who still use it. However, since this identification aid is already out there and widely accepted by the general public, we feel that we should address it comprehensively, and help educate all those who are seeking to inform themselves.
First of all, we want to emphasize that this “red touches yellow rule” does NOT apply to many of the Coral Snake species outside of the U.S. If you venture South of the border, please don’t take this saying with you, as it could land you in a heap of trouble. We have seen multiple photos of people casually free-handling Coral snakes in South America, because “red was touching black!” Below, is a photo of an Aquatic Coral Snake from the Peruvian Amazon, taken by our good friend, Matt Cage. As you can see, Coral snakes from other countries do not follow the same rules as our native ones.
Next, please note that Mother Nature has a sneaky way of occasionally producing oddballs. In the herpetology community, we call these exceptions, “abberancies”. You may have heard of albinism (lacking the pigment melanin) or hypermelanism (an overabundance of the pigment melanin) for example. These naturally occurring conditions are rare, but can cause an individual of a specific species to look drastically different from a normal specimen of the same species. Below, we have included photos of all three species of U.S. Coral snake, that were found in the wild. Unless you are a trained snake expert, you could easily mistake one of these snakes as something other than what it is. This is yet another example of how that old adage could get you in trouble. In short, regardless of the red touches yellow saying, if you aren’t 100% sure what kind of snake you are looking at, do not attempt to touch it.
Our last exception is an unfortunate little snake from the Southwest United States. Just when you think you have it all figured out, this little fella comes along and bucks the trend entirely! Red next to yellow kills a fellow, right? Not so in this instance. This harmless little Shovel-nosed snake from Arizona, is as close of a mimic as the Coral Snake has. However, if you look close, his head is not solid black, and the bands don’t actually go all the way around the belly. It’s an unfortunate reality that this harmless, docile, mild-mannered insect eater, is often a target of snake-fearing shovel wielders due to his similarity to his venomous cousin.
If nothing else, we hope to have introduced you to some amazingly beautiful, if misunderstood animals. Hopefully it goes without saying, but it is always best never to touch, catch or kill any snake, unless you know precisely what it is. Even if you are able to identify a species as venomous, it is still very rarely the best option to decapitate the animal. Please be aware that all of these animals fill a very important role in our ecosystem and anytime we interfere with nature, as has been proven many times over, we only cause more harm than good. There is almost always an alternative to killing an animal, and it is one of our goals at Snakebuddies to conserve and protect these amazing creatures. If you have any questions, concerns or arguments, you are invited to leave a comment below, and we will surely get back to you.
Educate. Inspire. Conserve.