What Do You Know About Coral Snakes?

Back again this week, and for a few weeks more, with the next in a series on snakes that’s being written for you by The Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department Supervisor, Judith Bryja. Our Herp Department knows their stuff, and since we get so much interest in snakes, Judith is writing this informative blog series each week just for you!  If you’d like to read the series from the beginning, click here.

The Texas coral snake is our only native elapid. Rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths are all pit vipers. The main differences are venom composition and fang structure. While the fangs of pit vipers fold up under the roof of the mouth, elapids have short fixed fangs. Elapid venom tends to have a lot of neurotoxins compared to most pitvipers.  There is nothing simple or black or white about venom so we won’t go there.  The coral snake is also the only venomous snake here that lays eggs instead of having live babies. 

Texas coral snake (Micrurus fulvius tener)

The coral snake has bands along its entire glossy body of red, yellow, and black.  Narrow yellow bands are between the alternating red and black rings.  The red rings are mottled with black.  The head and tail are black and yellow only.  The head is small and indistinct from the body.  The eyes are so dark you can hardly see them against the black head.  This is a small slender snake, averaging about 2 feet as an adult and about as big around as a pencil.
Coral snakes like mixed hardwood and pine forests.  They are very shy and secretive and usually stay hidden in leaf litter, rotten logs, etc.  If escape does not work, a coral snake will often suddenly push part of its body against the threat.  It may also flatten the last part of the body and raise and wave the tail along with hiding its head within its coils.

Coral snakes may be active at any time of day depending on temperature and other conditions.  3-8 elongated white eggs are laid in the summer and hatch about 2 months later.  Babies are about 6 inches long and look the same as adults.

The main prey of the coral snake is other snakes including a lot of earth snakes and Dekay’s snakes (covered in blogs #1 and #2 of this series).  They will also eat slender lizards such as ground skinks.
There is another native snake with the same colors as the coral snake though they look quite different. The old rhyme of “Red and yellow, kill a fellow; red and black, venom lack” works well to tell apart the coral snake and the Louisiana milk snake (below).

Louisiana milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum amaura)

This snakes gets much larger, is dull compared to the coral snake, has light white/beige mottling on its snout, and the red and black bands on the body are the ones that touch.  While that rhyme works well here at home, do not try to use it south of the border-it doesn’t work there.  There are many other kinds of coral snakes that look completely different.  While the venom of the coral snake is potentially quite dangerous, these snakes are in general very shy and inoffensive. Almost all bites occur when someone grabs one or tries to kill it, meaning it usually takes some personal effort to be bitten by one.  If you leave them alone they will leave you alone.

See you right back here next week for another installment in this great Snake Series!

For more information on Texassnakes, Judith has reccomended these two resources: http://www.herpsoftexas.org/ and  The Field Guide to TX Snakes written by James Dixon and former Houston Zoo director John Werler.

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