I have a vague memory from my childhood of looking at a book with pictures of coral snakes in it. I don’t remember if it was a kids’ book or a scientific book, but the image of the snake stands out in my mind, as does the memory of a rhyme which helps differentiate the venomous coral snake with harmless imitators, such as the milk snake. All I remember from the rhyme is that it was something about red and black and yellow, which isn’t very helpful if you’re trying to save yourself from a snake attack. It turns out the rhyme goes something like: Red on yellow, venom fellow; red on black, safe from attack. Now all I have to do is remember that.

There are over 80 species of coral snake in the world, that comprise six genera in the family Elapidae (they aren’t the only snakes in Elapidae however, as it’s a huge family that includes many venomous snakes, including cobras). That rhyme about coral snakes only applies to North American species, as other species can have a variety of banding patterns. New World coral snakes range from the southern United States to western Mexico, while Old World snakes live in Asia. Most species are fossorial or semi-fossorial, spending the majority of their time underground, only rising to the surface if it rains or during breeding season. A few species of coral snake are aquatic, living most of their lives in still waters. One thing all coral snakes love is hiding – they prefer areas with dense vegetation like forests with lots of leaf litter or ponds covered with branches.

A comparison between a milk snake (left) and coral snake (right).  Image source:  West Texas Herpetological Society
A comparison between a harmless milk snake (left) and a deadly coral snake (right).
Image source: West Texas Herpetological Society

Most coral snakes are fairly small, only growing to about three feet in length, and are fairly skinny. Aquatic coral snakes have tails that are flattened, to help them swim. Coral snake venom is very powerful; luckily for people these snakes are very shy, and when encountered prefer to flee instead of biting. And even if they do try to bite, their fangs are so small they can’t piece thick clothing. Coral snake bites cause respiratory failure within hours, and often artificial breathing and lots of antivenin are needed to save a victim’s life.

Unfortunately, because coral snake bites are so rare, antivenin production in the US has ceased, and all remaining stocks have expired. So don’t get bitten by a coral snake, because they might not be able to save you.

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