Many variations on the common rhyme ‘Red touching black is a friend of Jack, Red touching yellow can kill a fellow’ exist to distinguish between a venomous coral snake and their harmless mimics like scarlet king snakes. The problem with these rhymes is they are often misremembered and they are generally only regionally accurate since corals from some areas posses different patterns or colors. Although coral snakes wield a powerful neurotoxin, they are much less dangerous than other venomous snakes due to their short fangs, reclusive nature, and reluctance to bite. Most bites from coral snakes are considered self-inflicted because the victim approached and possibly even handled the snake.
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Class - Reptilia
Order - Squamata
Suborder - Serpentes
Family – Elapidae
Common names – Coral snake, American Cobra
Coral snakes are split into Old and New World (North & South American) species. The Old World species share some of their territories with their close relatives the cobras and mambas. Corals are slender snakes with small heads and, although individuals can reach over four feet, the average size is around 2-3 feet. Despite the aquatic sound of it name, coral snakes are mostly terrestrial, with some exceptions like the Amazonian species M. s. surinamensis. Of the 90 species of coral snake, the majority are found in North and South America with the few others found in Asia (thirteen species), Philippines (one species), East India (two species), and Africa (two species). The venom they produce is a neurotoxin and it attacks the central nervous system, death can occur from repertory failure.
Snakes, depending on their species, can either lay eggs or give birth to live young. The coral snake is the only venomous snake in North America that lays eggs. The western species lays 2-3 eggs while the eastern lays 6-7. The eggs hatch in the fall and the young snakes emerge fully colored and armed with their venom.
Coral snakes are reclusive and tend to remain unseen, even when there are large populations. Although they are capable of biting a human, those bites are rare. It is commonly thought that the short-fanged snake would have to chew a person to envenomate them, but they only need to pierce the skin to deliver their toxin. Their most common prey are other reptiles, primarily lizards and certain species of small snakes.
There is still much that is debated about snake evolution. They probably evolved from terrestrial lizards, although there is a strong theory that the giant aquatic mosasaurs were their ancestors. Fossil evidence shows the gradual loss of their limbs and two legged ancestors with vestigial limbs have been found. Today, there are about 3000 species of snake, covering every continent except Antarctica, as well as both fresh and marine waterways.
Coral snakes are not considered to be in danger of extinction and are quite common in parts of their range. No antivenin has been produced since 2003 and the lots, although originally dated to expire in 2008, expired in April of 2014. There are efforts to begin manufacturing the antivenin again.
- Peterson Field Guides Reptiles and Amphibians (Eastern/Central North America) by Roger Conant and Joseph T. Collins
- Risk from coral-snake bites grows as antivenin dwindles October 12, 2013 By David Breen, Orlando Sentinel
- Coral Snakes of the Americas: Biology, Identification, and Venoms by Janis A. Roze
- The Venomous Snakes and their Mimics of Panama and Costa Rica by Julie M. Ray and James L. Knight
- Peterson Field Guides A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants: (North America North of Mexico)by Steven Foster and Roger Caras