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, I will concentrate on Coral Snakes and some of their similar looking, yet harmless relatives.
You’ve probably heard some variation of the old adage, “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. There are however, a few exceptions to the rule. My intention with this article, is to help people be able to better identify snakes they should 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 nature’s way 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 and 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 the map above, 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.
As fear-invoking as that all sounds, there is some good news. Our native Corals are quite small and reclusive, spend most of their time underground or under cover, and will avoid human contact at all costs. Although they have the potential to deliver a lethal bite, they have very small fangs and a fairly poor delivery system compared to the pit vipers that inhabit our country. Corals will only bite as a last resort, and this happens almost exclusively when they are tampered with and picked up.
Despite these facts, Coral Snakes are obviously best left alone. If you are lucky enough to see one in the wild, appreciate its beauty from a distance, and as long as it is not remarkably close to urbanization, allow it to continue on its way. 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.
Coral snakes are best identified by a solid black head followed by a 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. A the saying goes, Corals also have red bands surrounded on both sides by yellow bands. As burrowers, Corals have very small eyes that are solid black and hard to discern from a distance greater than a few feet. Here are some examples of the Coral snakes that inhabit the U.S.
This is my all-time favorite snake in the United States. They simply don’t get any more beautiful than this! I 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. 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 farts! This rare behavior in the snake kingdom is called cloacal popping. It does not actually emit any 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 still beautiful, the Eastern Coral snake is not quite as vividly or cleanly colored as the Arizona species. They are however, the most toxic in the U.S. The color sequence is identical to the Arizona Coral, but their banding is not as “clean” and they often have black speckling (pitting) on their yellow and red scales, making them look a bit darker overall. These snakes eat frogs, lizards and small snakes. Humans are not part of their diet, and they will therefore only bite a person if disturbed or handled.
Though the Eastern Coral 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 in 2009. The “victim” however, failed to seek any medical treatment after 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 last remaining vials of this antivenom expire in 2010, making the relatively few bites each year, that much more dangerous. The serum was decided to be too expensive to produce. There is an effective antivenom available from South America, but so far the FDA refuses to allow it to be imported.
As safe as they are beautiful: Red and 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 it was 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 Milksnakes around the country, and most of them look fairly similar. You’ll notice that like the Coral Snake, the Milksnake 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.
Sonoran Shovel-nosed Snake
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.
Thanks for reading!
Your fellow Snakebuddy,