Coral snakes are a member of the cobra family.
They are the only member of that family to live in North America and one of only 4 types of venomous snakes in the United States.
In fact, there are only 21 poisonous snakes in the US period. 16 of them are rattlesnake species, two are copperheads, one is a cottonmouth, and two are coral snakes.
Where do coral snakes rank among those 21 snakes in terms of toxicity and deadliness?
Let’s take a close look at this beautiful snake and find out just how deadly it actually is.
Table of Contents
- 1 How Poisonous Are Coral Snakes?
- 2 Coral Snake Info
- 2.1 Description
- 2.2 Coral Snake ‘Look-Alikes’
- 2.3 Not An Aggressive Snake
- 2.4 Baby Coral Snakes Are As Venomous As The Parents
- 2.5 A Poor Venom Delivery System
- 2.6 Deaths Have Occurred But Are Rare
- 2.7 Some Facts About Coral Snake Bites
- 3 Coral Snakes: Final Thoughts
How Poisonous Are Coral Snakes?
Coral snakes may be small, but these brightly colored snakes are highly venomous. In fact, their venom is the most potent of all snakes found in the United States.
But they are not the most dangerous, because they don’t have a particularly good poison-delivery system. Their teeth are simply too small and there has been only one recorded death in the US since antivenom was developed in 1967.
Coral Snake Info
Coral snakes are members of the Elapidae family, and there are many different species of them. They live throughout the Americas, with most being found in Central and South America.
The most well-known in the United States is the eastern coral snake, which is found along the Florida and Georgia coasts. In fact, there are three types of common coral snakes in the US.
- the aforementioned eastern coral snake found in Florida and the southeast.
- the Texas coral snake found in Texas and northwestern Mexico.
- the Sonoran coral snake found in the southeastern US and the state of Sonora, Mexico.
Something that coral snakes have in common with other elapids is that they are front-fanged snakes, just like mambas, taipans, and cobras. They are the only North American snakes in the cobra family.
The kind of prey that they enjoy are frogs, lizards, and mice, and sometimes even other snakes. The Coral snake is known as an ophiophagous snake, which means ‘snake eater’.
The Coral Snake is a slender snake, measuring around 20 inches in length. There are some species that can reach 3 feet.
Bright eye-catching colors are a characteristic of this fascinating creature. It stands out with its distinctive skin pattern and vibrant, bright coloring with red, yellow and black stripes around the body.
It often happens in nature that brightly colored creatures are extremely poisonous and there is a belief that this holds true for snakes. But many brightly colored snakes are not venomous. The corn snake is a good example.
That said, the coral snake in an example of a highly venomous brightly colored snake. This is a very poisonous snake with a deadly neurotoxic venom.
Coral Snake ‘Look-Alikes’
The animal and plant kingdom is fascinating because you might get other animals that aren’t poisonous or dangerous, but they actually develop similar colors and patterns to a poisonous one.
They become look-alikes. And there are snakes that look very similar to the coral snake, but they aren’t the least bit venomous.
A typical example of a snake which mimics the colorful coral snake is the scarlet king snake. Meeting one, you’d immediately think you were in the presence of a coral snake.
A clever way to tell the difference between coral snakes and their lookalikes and to know for certain which snake is which is to look at the snake’s ring pattern.
With a coral snake, the red and yellow rings are always next to each other. The ring pattern is red, yellow, black, yellow red. With the scarlet king snake, the ring pattern is red, black, yellow, black and red. Sometimes you get some blue as well.
Another good way to identify the coral snake is by its head, which is blunt and black.
Not An Aggressive Snake
Like most snakes, the coral snake just wants to be left in peace. It’s a nocturnal snake and it is reclusive. People don’t often come into contact with coral snakes because they are more active at night.
When provoked, the snake, expels air from its cloaca, making popping sounds. This is to startle the threat and make it move away.
And that’s what you should do if you hear it make those sounds. Just leave it alone. It’s not an aggressive snake and will only bite when you irritate it.
When you’re outdoors, particularly in the wilderness, be careful around leafy areas and logs. Coral snakes like to spend time under logs, among leaves, and in rocky areas.
Western coral snakes live primarily in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Northern Mexico where there are no leaves. They hang out under rocks or they to burrow into the sand.
Baby Coral Snakes Are As Venomous As The Parents
Another interesting fact is that it is the only venomous snake in North America that lays eggs. The others give birth to live baby snakes. The babies that emerge from the eggs are as venomous as the parents from the day they slither out into the world.
A Poor Venom Delivery System
The venom of the Coral snake is neurotoxic, and they have a different way of delivering it. They need to use a chewing action to inject the venom, and the severity of its bite is determined by the volume of venom injected and the size and health of the victim.
Unlike other venomous snakes, the coral snake doesn’t retract its fangs into its mouth and they are constantly erect. The fangs of the snake are small and hollow and positioned at the front of the mouth.
The fangs have a small groove and the venom enters the base of the fangs. Because they are small, the fangs are actually not particularly effective for venom delivery.
That is why the coral snake has to bite and holds onto its prey, making those chewing motions already mentioned so as to deliver sufficient toxin.
The venom affects the nervous system, bringing about muscle paralysis. As the venom moves through the body, the bite victim begins to have difficulty breathing. Without aid, you could die.
Deaths Have Occurred But Are Rare
In fact, there has only been one documented death in over 50 years. Inocencio Hernandez, aged 29, was bitten on June 10, 2006 in Florida. He became the first person to die in the United States from a Coral snake bite since 1967.
He was actually trying to kill the snake that bit him, once again showing that the safest thing you can do is simply leave these snakes alone. Most bites result from people being stupid.
For example, in 2018 there was a spike in coral snake bites in a small area central Florida, with no less than 4 people being bitten by the venomous reptile in short succession. Anti-venom was available in local hospitals, so none of the bites were fatal.
But it seems as though the people bitten were attracted to the bright colors of the snake, thinking them to be the non-venomous Kingsnake. They wanted a photograph of themselves with the snake to post onto Facebook. One person was bitten while holding the snake.
Again: just leave them alone. Don’t be an idiot. And if you can’t tell the difference between snakes, assume it is poisonous and don’t pose for photos with it.
How To Tell The Difference Between A Poisonous Coral Snake And A Non-Poisonous King Snake
Some Facts About Coral Snake Bites
- An average of about 47 bites from coral snakes are reported to Florida poison centers each year.
- The victim of a coral snake bite does have time to get to a hospital because the onset of symptoms usually starts during the first 2 – 6 hours after a bite. Symptoms include nausea and vomiting, slurred speech, sweating profusely, muscle aches, battling to breathe, and in some rare cases cardiac arrest and death.
- There was a time before anti-venom was developed in 1967, that a person may not have stood the chance of surviving a coral snake bite. Since that time, if anti-venom is administered promptly, you will likely survive.
- People who aren’t familiar with the coral snake and its bite might think that the bite of this snake is nothing to get worked up about. This is because the venom is slow to take hold. It can also take about 48 hours for the venom of the Coral Snake to reach maximum effect. This is very different from the black mamba for instance. It’s one of the world’s deadliest snakes, and extremely toxic. Unlike the coral snake, mambas are highly aggressive when threatened and just 2 drops of their venom can kill a human. A fatality can occur within 20 minutes.
- All snake bites require attention, even if the snake is non-venomous. This is to prevent infection. There will probably be blood at the puncture site. This means that the skin has been broken and possible envenomation has occurred.
- A person bitten by a Coral snake can face a long stint in hospital on ventilator support. They can face pneumonia and organ failure. Long term rehabilitation may also be necessary for neuromuscular damage. There are cases where anti-venom was delayed and where symptoms progressed to paralysis.
- Coral snake anti-venom is an equine-derived IgG. The anti-venom prevents progression of symptoms and doesn’t reverse any neurologic signs that have already occurred.
- The trouble with the Coral Snake is that too many people assume that this colorful snake is the non-venomous scarlet kingsnake. People shouldn’t be careless about the identification of snakes – as it can be fatal.
- Whether you’re a hiker without any knowledge of snakes or a skilled herpetologist, you have to take precautions. Many herpetologists have been bitten and paid the ultimate price for being too familiar with the snakes they handle. If you’re bitten by a snake, it is important to get help immediately and to also try and identify the snake.
If you suspect that you’ve been bitten by a Coral Snake, don’t wait around, call emergency services immediately.
Coral Snakes: Final Thoughts
The coral snake is highly toxic, but that does not necessarily make it dangerous. Bites are rare and deaths are almost unheard of. That is because these snakes only bite as a last resort.
They mean us no harm.
Coral snakes and all other species are not creatures you need to fear. You just need to treat them with the utmost respect and you should never try to catch them and do something idiotic like take a selfie with one.