Emily Dickinson famously referred to a snake as being “a slender fellow in the grass.” The eastern coral snake is that, for sure. Very slim, and not a particularly long snake, either, they none-the-less have garnered an enormous reputation. Much of that reputation is exaggerated, or just plain wrong. In today’s post, I’d like to shed some light on this most beautiful of reptiles, in a balanced way that I hope will sort out some popular misconceptions, and give you a quick lesson in the easiest way to tell coral snakes apart from their completely harmless mimics.
First, the basics. The eastern coral snake, Micrurus fulvius, is an elapid, rather than a pit viper, like all other venomous snakes in the United States. That means, it is closely related to the cobras, mambas, and sea snakes, having neurotoxic venom, which attacks the nervous system. Pit vipers have hemotoxic venom, which attacks the blood. Coral snake bites cause an interruption in communication from the brain to the rest of the body, and can result in cardiac and respiratory failure, with suffocation often being the end result. So right from the get-go, coral snakes are set apart from all other snakes in North America.
As you can see, black, yellow, and red banding on the coral snake make it one of the most beautiful snakes in the world. It has a quiet and docile nature, and people, even children, have gotten away with handling wild ones occasionally, without being bitten. This is NOT something you should ever do, and therefore, the first thing I want to do is tell you how to recognize a coral snake when you see one. In fact, I’m going to let you in on the very easiest way to identify them. Hint: forget the rhymes.
“Red on yellow, kill a fellow—wait! Maybe it was red on yellow, good for fellow?” Trust me on this. The rhyme might be correct, but if you are staring at a red, yellow, and black snake curled up in a corner of your patio, those words will leap right out of your brain faster than you can yell, “EEEEK! A snake!” I know this to be true, since a friend of mine recently had just such an experience, and stood frozen, trying to remember the correct version of this rhyme, while a very long coral snake slid right past his feet. (I saw the photo. No doubt about it.)
But here’s the good news. There is one very quick, easy to spot way to tell a coral snake apart from the similar scarlet snake and scarlet kingsnake, both of which share the same habitat with their more dangerous relative. Ready? Here it is: the nose. Yep. Look at this next picture.
The eastern coral snake has a black one. VERY shiny black, and visible. Now look at the next two pictures.
Note that both the scarlet kingsnake (first picture) and the scarlet snake (second picture) have RED noses. Yes, their patterns are different from the coral snake, too, but checking that out would take quite a bit longer than just taking note of the nose coloration. So, using one of my slides from my Swamp Ghosts presentation, here it is in a nutshell:
Of course, the coral snake is NOT a bad guy, by any means, but you do not want to be bitten by one. And that brings me to a bit of misinformation that I hear at just about every presentation I do. The one that goes, “coral snakes have to chew to inject venom.” Wrong. Let me repeat louder. WRONG.
Coral snakes do have small fangs, in a relatively small mouth. The fangs are short and fixed in place at the front of their mouths, compared to the long fangs of pit vipers, which fold back against the roof of their mouths when not in use. But the coral snake does not have to chew to be dangerous. Even a scratch from one of those fixed fangs can cause envenomation, and can be very dangerous, indeed, for the person involved. Granted, because coral snakes can’t control the amount of venom they inject, as rattlesnakes and other vipers can, chewing helps them deliver a full toxic load. But it doesn’t take a full load to be dangerous, especially if you are small. Say, child-sized. Or have health issues that would complicate the injection of any amount of neurotoxins.
SO. If you don’t take away anything else today, please remember how to tell the coral snake from the totally harmless mimics. AND, please remember never to pick up even the smallest coral snake, no matter how docile it might seem. To do so is to risk serious harm, and it will not be the fault of the snake.
Now on to some more facts about these beautiful creatures.
The eastern coral snake’s range extends from the Florida Keys, throughout the rest of the state, north through the southeastern part of North Carolina, and west into Texas and Mexico. (The far west red area is more likely to be the western coral snake habitat, though there could be some overlap.)
Eastern coral snakes aren’t very picky about the type of habitat they enjoy. Everything from dry, well–drained flatwoods and scrub areas to low, wet hammocks along the borders of swamps is home to them. However, for as dense as their population is, coral snakes are not spotted very often, because they are shy and secretive, and spend most of their time burrowing around under leaf debris and the like. They would rather hide than fight any day, and do a darn good job of it, too. While they certainly include the St. Johns River Basin as part of their habitat, I’ve never seen one along the river, either on an eco tour or in my own canoe. Doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Just that they’d rather not have their pictures taken. This one is probably looking for a place to dig in.
The diet of the eastern coral snake is largely made up of lizards, frogs, and other snakes. The females lay 3 to 12 eggs in June that hatch in September, and the young are about 7 inches long when they emerge, fully equipped with venom. All of the other venomous snakes in the United States bear live young.
While I don’t expect everyone to love and admire snakes as much as I do, I would like to think that someday, people will stop going out of their way to bash them over the head with shovels. So many snakes are completely harmless, and even the ones you don’t want to handle will always choose to avoid you, if possible. A good rule of thumb is don’t corner them. When you spot a potentially dangerous species, walk away. If you are between them and where they want to go, you should correct that situation as quickly as possible, and let the snake make good its escape.
Contrary to what some people think, snakes do not want to waste their venom on humans. It’s critical to their food catching ability, and they would prefer to use it on things they can swallow. You aren’t one of those. So, given the chance, they will always opt for gliding away, and they will not chase you, I promise. Your best bet when venturing into their habitat is to watch where you step, and where you poke your hands. And remember, most snakebites occur when people are trying to either catch snakes or KILL them. My advice is don’t do either of those, and you’ll likely be just fine.
And that's it for this week. Next week's #NotesFromTheRiver will probably feature feathers and not scales! See you then!