Coral snakes are most notable for their red, yellow, and black colored banding. Several nonvenemous species have similar coloration, however, including the Scarlet Kingsnake and the Milk Snake. In some regions, the order of the bands distinguishes between the non-venomous mimics and the venomous coral snakes, inspiring some folk rhymes — Red touching yellow kills a fellow; Red touching black is a friend of Jack, Red on yellow, kill a fellow; Red on black, venom lack, Red and yellow, kill a fellow; Red and black, poison lack, or "Red touches black, you're ok Jack; Red touches yellow, you're a dead fellow.". However, this only applies to Micrurus fulvius and Micrurus tener, found in the south and eastern United States. Coral snakes found in other parts of the world can have distinctly different patterns, and can even have red bands touching black bands, have only red and black banding, or have no banding at all.
Most species of coral snake are small in size. North American species average around 24" in length, but specimens of up to 35" or slightly larger are not unheard of. Young are normaly 5-7 inches however they still have enough venom to kill an adult human. South American species can get much larger. They are thin bodied snakes, with a head the same width as the body, small eyes, and a rounded snout. Aquatic species have flattened tails, to act as a fin, aiding in swimming.
The body is encircled by wide red and black rings separated by narrow yellow bands. The head is uniformly black from the tip of it blunt snout to just behind the eyes. Red rings usually spotted with black, the black dotting fuses into a pair of spots on the back into a single spot on the belly. The scales are smooth and shiny in 15 rows and the anal plate is divided.
Like all elapid snakes, coral snakes use a pair of small fangs, which are fixed in the front of their top jaw, to deliver their venom. Due to the time it takes for the venom take effect, coral snakes have a tendency to hold on to a victim when biting, unlike vipers which have retractable fangs and tend to prefer to strike and let go immediately. Coral snakes are not aggressive or prone to biting however, and account for less than a single percent of the number of snake bites each year in the United States. Most coral snake bites occur because of accidental handling of the snake while engaged in an activity like gardening.
Coral snakes belong to the same family as the highly venomous cobras, kraits, mambas, and sea snakes. Unlike vipers and pit vipers, coral snakes have fangs that are fixed in position on the front part of the upper jaw and cannot be folded back. Coral snake venom is strongly neurotoxic, affecting the vistim's nervous and respiratry systems, and bites can be fatal! Do not handle these snakes!
Several harmless snakes have the color patterns resembling that of the coral snake. Coral snakes always have a blunt black snout and red, yellow, and black rings that completely encircle the body.
Eastern Coral Snake