Coral Snake: The Ultimate Guide

Coral snake -

Coral Snake: The Ultimate Guide

2678 words - 10 min of reading

The Coral Snake is a small venomous snake well known for its bright colors. It has one of the most potent and toxic venoms of all snakes.

When we speak about the "coral snake," we are referring to the most famous: the American Coral Snake 🌎. But coral snakes are divided into two main groups:

  • Asian Coral Snakes ("Old World").
  • American Coral Snakes ( "New World" ).

The New World coral snake is considered one of the most poisonous reptiles in North America. And if there's one snake that the people of Texas have learned to be wary of, it's this one! 😅

The general public well knows this fabulous animal for its color and venom. However, few people know more about it. In this complete article, we will tell you everything there is to know about this fascinating snake!

coral snake

1. CHARACTERISTICS OF THE CORAL SNAKE

A. SIZE AND MORPHOLOGY

The coral snake generally measures between 45 and 50 centimeters/19 inches. But some species reach 1 meter 📏. The western coral snake can be as thin as a pencil. All representatives of this genus have slim cylindrical bodies, smooth scales, and a short tail.
The nose of the coral snake is rounded, its head is bulbous, and its neck is almost indistinguishable. Its body is covered with colored scales that are smooth and shiny.

The rounded head is uncommon in poisonous snakes. Most of these small beasts have a triangular head (Bothrops asper, Rattlesnakes, 🐍...). Similarly, the pupils of the coral snake are round, compared to the slit-shaped pupils of most venomous ophidians.

coral snake face

B. THE CORAL SNAKE

The most distinctive physical characteristic of coral snakes is, without a doubt, their brightly colored bodies with their unique patterns 🤩. Most species are tricolored (rarely bicolored), with various combinations of red, black, yellow, or white rings. The width of the colored collars varies according to the species.

The coral snake of the eastern United States (the most famous), can be recognized by its red, yellow, and black stripes.

C. THE LIFESPAN

The average lifespan of a coral snake in the wild is unknown, but it can live up to 7 years in captivity. But the record for longevity in captivity for the eastern coral snake is 18 years!

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serpent ring collection

2. THE CORAL SNAKE IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM

A. CLASSIFICATION AND TAXONOMY OF THE CORAL SNAKE

According to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), the coral snake belongs to the order Squamata, suborder Snakes, and family of Elapidae 👨🎓. The Elapidae family includes the world's most venomous snakes, including cobras, sea snakes, and black mambas.

The term "Coral Snake" is generally used to refer to a single animal. But it refers to a type of snake. It includes about 70 species of coral snakes in America and about 15 species of in Asia 🌏. To simplify this article, we have chosen to refer only to the "coral snake."

B. THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF CORAL SNAKES

In the United States, three types of coral snake predominate:

  • Micrurus fulvius: Eastern coral snake, found in Florida and the southeastern United States. Also known as the Eastern Coral Snake, this species is the best known to the general public.
  • Micrurus tener: Texas coral snake, is found in Texas and northwestern Mexico.
  • Micruroides euryxanthus: Sonoran coral snake is found in the southwestern United States and the state of Sonora, Mexico.

Among the species of Asian coral snakes we count:

  • Eight species of Calliophis
  • 5 species of Sinomicrurus
    The single species Hemibungarus from the Philippines
  • Two species of Maticora from the East Indies (on this species the venom glands extend over more than a third of the body ! 😮).

There are also two African coral snakes (Homoroselaps). These animals are orange, black, and yellow. They have a more massive neck, a bit like the Royal Cobra.

african coral snake

3. BLUE CORAL SNAKE AND OTHER SPECIES

The term "Coral Snake" refers to a group composed of several species of snake, many other ophidians have this name 🤔. And sometimes they don't look at all like what you might think of a coral snake! Here are the three main species of coral snake:

  • Eastern Coral Snake: From North Carolina to Florida and Texas, this is the brightest of the North American coral snakes. Its body is entirely covered with shiny bands of black, red, and yellow.

eastern coral snake

  • Western or Arizona Coral Snake: This snake from southwestern North America has the same basic color pattern as its eastern cousin, although the colors are slightly faded. The yellow stripes, in particular, are paler, and may even be white. 

arizona coral snake

  • Malaysian Blue Coral Snake (Calliophis bivirgatus): This stunning snake lives in the jungles of Southeast Asia. He has a dark blue body with light blue or white stripes on each side. Its beautiful head and coral-red tail can recognize it. 

malaysian blue coral snake

 4. THE CORAL SNAKE, A HIGHLY VENOMOUS REPTILE

A. THE CORAL SNAKE AND ITS VENOM

The coral snake has one of the most toxic venoms of all snakes (Inland Taipan being the deadliest snake 💀). This cocktail of amino acids, peptides, proteins, and enzymes; is secreted by special glands connected to each of the snake's hooks.

However, coral snakes are generally considered less dangerous than rattlesnakes. This is because, as seen previously, they have a less effective venom injection system and do not "hit" their prey as rattlesnakes and asp vipers do. Due to its morphology, the coral snake delivers its venom by chewing movements, which is much less effective.

coral snake venom

B. EFFECTS OF CORAL SNAKE POISON

The coral snake's neurotoxic venom acts on the nervous system. It causes fast paralysis and respiratory insufficiency in its victims. Symptoms can take several hours to appear in humans (up to 12 hours 😰). Also, there is often little or no pain or swelling in humans following a coral snake bite.

However, if not treated with the antivenom, the neurotoxin begins to affect the connections between the brain and muscles of the prey. This results in difficulty in speaking, double vision, muscle paralysis, and finally, respiratory or heart failure, which can lead to death. ☠️

Unlike the pit viper or rattlesnake, the venom of the coral snake does not cause tissue necrosis.

A snake does not necessarily inject venom in every bite 😅. It is well known that envenomations (bites with venom injection) of coral snakes are relatively rare compared to bites of venomous vipers or other Elapidae such as the Black Mamba.

coral snake venomous bite

5. CORAL SNAKE AND ANTIVENOM

A. AN ANTIDOTE TO CORAL SNAKE VENOM?

The North American Coral Snake Antivenin (NACSA) is an antivenom derived from the horse 🐴, used in cases of coral snake envenomation for adults and children. Are you surprised by the term "horse-derived"? Then we invite you to read our article on Snake Venom to find out how much serum is made!

The administration of coral snake antivenom is recommended at the first sign of neurological deficit or respiratory deficiency 💉. The sooner the antivenom is given, the better! But be careful not to do it before the early symptoms appear.

north american coral snake antivenin

B. THE ANTIVENOM AND ITS DANGERS

Currently, NACSA stocks are limited as production stopped in 2006. The remaining vials of this antivenom have passed the manufacturer's expiration date (2008), but the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has extended the expiration date to January 31, 2019 😮.

A new potential antivenom for the toxicity of coral snake venom (still derived from horses) is currently being tested in clinical studies in the United States 🏥. However, other useful antivenoms against coral snake toxins are available (such as Coralmyn, which is manufactured in Mexico) and recommended by Poison Control.

Allergic and hypersensitivity reactions to coral snake antivenom are common. Antihistamines are therefore necessary to avoid Anaphylaxis shock due to allergy 💊.

Usually, the management of a coral snake bite is ensured by a whole medical team:

  • Doctor
  • poison control center
  • toxicologist
  • ICU nurses

coralmyn antivenin

6. ONE OF THE MOST DANGEROUS SNAKES IN THE WORLD 

A. THE CORAL SNAKE AND ITS BITE

Pacific and fearful, the coral snake generally only bites humans when handled or stepped on 💥. Unlike most other venomous snakes, the coral snake cannot contract its hooks in its mouth to "get its fangs out" to bite.

The coral snakes' small fixed fangs and smallmouth make it difficult for them to pierce human skin, especially leather boots. Coral snakes must therefore literally chew their victim to inject their venom fully. Humans are most often bitten when trying to capture a coral snake 🖐️. These snakes, because of their small size, do not carry much hatred in their fangs, so they may try to cling to their victim for a while to try to inject as much as possible.

coral snake head

As a result, most human bites do not result in death because the snake cannot inject a lethal amount of venom. No deaths from coral snake bites have been reported in the United States since the development of an antivenom in 1967 👍. Only 25 to 50 of the approximately 9,000 total snake bites in the United States are due to coral snakes. The species Micrurus fulvius and Micrurus tener are responsible for all reported coral snake bites in the United States.

Unlike pit vipers, coral snakes are more discreet and are very shy 😨. For this reason, coral snake bites often occur after intentional handling of the snake by humans, or after harassment by curious animals. 

Nevertheless, a coral snake bite can be excruciating, and the toxins it injects can cause cardiac arrest if untreated. 💔

coral snake lethal bite

B. SYMPTOMS OF POISONING

Initial symptoms of a coral snake bite may include mild pain in the area of the bit (no bite marks may be visible), nausea 🤢, vomiting, dizziness, and abdominal pain.

The neurotoxicity of venom occurs in several ways: by

  • Progressive mobility deficits
  • Neurological deficits (difficulty thinking and concentrating)
  • Increasing muscle weakness

Fatal complications of coral snake bites are related to weak respiratory muscles and the need for ventilatory support when the patient's condition deteriorates too much.

Significant envenomation is rare due to the less aggressive behavior of the coral snake and its less efficient venom delivery mechanism. However, the delay in the appearance of symptoms can be up to 12 hours, which justifies very close medical observation after a bite reported 🔎.

mortal coral snake bite

C. CORAL SNAKE BITE TREATMENT

When a victim arrives with a coral snake bite, it is essential to determine when the bite occurred because neurotoxic effects and respiratory insufficiency can be delayed up to 12 hours ⌚. 

⚠️Treating a coral snake bite involves three steps:⚠️

  • Make sure the snake doesn't bite anyone else...
  • Treat local injuries, even if they are usually minimal. 🩹
  • Minimize the victim's movements
  • Avoid activities that increase the heart rate to reduce the spread of venom in the body.

Contrary to popular belief, tourniquets, venom extraction (by incision and oral, manual, or mechanical aspiration) and cryotherapy is not recommended ❌.

Due to the possibility of late-onset of symptoms, victims of a coral snake bite should be monitored for at least 24 hours 🩺. Hospitalization includes close respiratory monitoring and frequent neurological examinations.

coral snake treatment

7. CORAL SNAKE AND PREDATORS

In addition to its potent venom, the coral snake has other strategies to defend itself against predators 🛡️.

The tail of the coral snake looks like the head of a snake, which means that it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two. Coral snakes use this characteristic to confuse attackers by burying their heads in their coiled bodies and raising their tails. Their attacker is thus tricked 🤫... It is better to lose your tail than your head!

When provoked, coral snakes sometimes make a loud noise by expelling air from their cloaca (a hole used for both excretion and reproduction) to scare off their predators 💨. These "snake farts" have been observed in other species, such as the Western Hook-nosed Snake. Scientists disagree on the purpose of this behavior.  Some have speculated that it is a mating call, but it's recognized that the snake fart has always been associated with a defensive response.

coral snake defensive posture for predators

8. WHERE DOES THE CORAL SNAKE LIVE?

Different species of coral snake can live in a wide variety of environments.

Asian coral snakes live in forested areas 🌳, swampy areas, or in the jungle. They spend most of their time underground or in stacks of leaves.

Western species prefer the sandy hills of the southeastern United States, the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, or northern Mexico. In these environments, coral snakes live under rocks and bury themselves in the sand or soil ⛏️. They can also be found in rocky areas.

Coral snakes are nocturnal and solitary. As a result, they spend most of their time staying warm in burrows, under rocks or rotting leaves 🍂. They are most often seen in the spring and fall.

coral snake in rotting leaves florida

9. WHAT DOES A CORAL SNAKE EAT?

Coral snakes are carnivorous. Among their favorite prey are:

  • Other small snakes (even small coral snakes) 🐍
  • All kinds of lizards 🦎
  • Frogs and other amphibians 🐸
  • Coral snakes attack other serpents, especially worms and blind snakes. Lizards being a secondary food source.

coral serpent eating a lizard

10. REPRODUCTION OF THE CORAL SNAKE 

Unlike many other venomous snakes that give birth to young live snakes, coral snakes lay eggs 🥚 (they are therefore oviparous). Among the four venomous snakes native to the United States, only the coral snake is oviparous. The other three (the rattlesnake, Copperhead, and Water Moccasin) are pit vipers, and vipers do not lay eggs.

Western coral snakes lay 6 to 13 eggs in summer, which hatch in early autumn. Asian coral snakes lay 2-3 eggs.

The newborn babies already have their brilliant color and potent venom. They are about 17 cm/7inch long when they hatch 👶.

coral snake reproduction eggs

11. A NON-VENOMOUS CORAL SNAKE?

A. CORAL SNAKE AND FALSE CORAL 

It is incredible to see that some non-venomous snakes have developed to resemble the real coral snake! By appearing to be a dangerous snake, these imitators mislead their potential predators by pretending to be more hazardous than they are 👹. This avoids producing venom, which requires a lot of energy and which is very precious to the beast.

false coral snake

B. FALSE CORAL SNAKE

There are 50 kinds of snakes imitating coral snakes. Among these "false coral snakes," the most famous are:

  • The Kingsnake (or Lampropeltis)
  • The Eastern milk Snake
  • The Sinaloa milk snake
  • Pueblan milk snake

However, the disguise of these animals is not perfect... 🤥

pueblan milk snake

12. HOW TO RECOGNIZE A REAL CORAL SNAKE

The best way to distinguish a real coral snake from a fake is to look at its colored rings. There is an American proverb that says: "Red touches yellow, kills a fellow. Red touches black, a friend of Jack". 🏃💨.

While this proverb works perfectly for coral snakes in the United States, it fails with some species of Asian coral snakes 🤔. In other parts of the world, poisonous coral snakes may have red bands touching black bands, pink and blue bands, or no bands at all.

The best way to identify a coral snake is by its head, which is blunt and black behind the eyes, and by the bands that surround the body, even on the belly.

united state and asian coral snake differences

There you go, now you're an expert on the coral snake! 😀

Generally speaking, the coral snake is not endangered by extinction, as other snakes may be. But in any case, we advise you not to try to capture one if you have the chance to wander around Texas!

Are you interested in snakes? So like us! That's why we founded The Vipers House®: to share our passion for this reptile with as many people as possible.

Whether it is through our Snake Jewellery or our Snake Clothing, we make every effort to offer a wide range of quality handcrafted products, built on request 👌. These last ones being addressed as much too passionate people of the serpent, as to people in search of an original style. 

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