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Coral Snakes

[Western Coral Snake]   [Eastern Coral Snake]

Coral Snake, common name for certain small, brightly colored, venomous snakes of the dangerous family of snakes that also includes the cobra. About 50 species of coral snake are known, most of them native to Central and South America. Most coral snakes are marked with a pattern of brightly colored rings or bands that are black, yellow, and red, although the color and pattern of some tropical species can vary. Two species of coral snake are found in the United States: the Eastern coral snake, or harlequin snake, of the southeastern states; and the smaller Western, or Arizona, coral snake, found from the southern parts of New Mexico and Arizona to northwestern Mexico. Both have slender heads and bodies and tend to be secretive and nocturnal. However, coral snakes can sometimes be seen after rains, on overcast days, and in the early morning or late evening. The Eastern coral snake is relatively large—often more than 60 cm (more than 24 in) in length—and lives in many habitats, including pine woods and hardwood forests. The Western coral snake is smaller, rarely reaching more than 50 cm (more than 20 in), and occurs in dry habitats. Some South American coral snakes are more than 2 m (more than 6.5 ft) in length, and some are semi-aquatic. When threatened, coral snakes usually curl their tails into a tight spiral and hold them upright; this behavior is thought to attract predators to the tail rather than to the more vulnerable head. Most coral snakes feed on small snakes and lizards.


Like other members of the family to which they belong, coral snakes have a pair of short fangs fixed in the front of the mouth through which they inject a lethal poison that acts primarily on the nervous system. Although not aggressive, coral snakes will bite readily when irritated or restrained. Many species of harmless snakes mimic coral snakes in color and pattern, probably to discourage predators.


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Western Coral Snake

Micruroides euryxanthus


The brightly banded Western Coral Snake, a relative of the Indian Cobra, injects a venom twice as powerful as the rattlesnake. But because of its size, anatomy and habits, there are no known deaths in the Desert Southwest attributed its bite.

Sonoran Desert of Arizona and northern Mexico, to the southwest corner of New Mexico below 5,800 feet.

Encountered in a number of habitats, but is most frequent in rocky, upland desert regions where Saguaro Cactus is prevalent.

The small Western Coral Snake has a correspondingly small head. Adults grow only 13 to 22 inches in length with a girth about the size of a pencil. The Coral Snake is remarkable for its wide red and black bands and narrow yellow and white rings completely encircling its body.

A few other snakes mimic this coloration, most notably the Scarlet Kingsnake, but the Western Coral Snake is the only snake with red bands bordered by white or pale yellow.

Worldwide, there are about 65 species of coral snakes, all members of the of the cobra family (Elapidae). Micrurus is the large genus of coral snakes in the Americas. Micruroides is the genus to which U.S. (and northern Mexico) Coral snakes belong and is a genus unique to the northern forms.

The Western Coral is nocturnal in its habits and is most likely to be out and about after summer rains, when few people are present. Coral snakes are very secretive, spending most of their lives under rocks or buried in the soil.

Its bright coloration serves as a warning to predators, but if provoked, it will bury its head in the coils of its body and raise its tail to expose the underside. The coral snake then everts the lining of its cloaca, making a popping sound to startle enemies.

The neurotoxic effects of its potent venom cause rapid paralysis and respiratory failure among its favorite cold-blooded prey, snakes and lizards. It prefers tiny blind snakes throughout its range, but will eat shovel-nosed snakes, black-headed snakes and whiptail lizards.

click photo of Snake to see enlarged view

Eastern Coral Snake

Range:  Eastern North Carolina to Key Largo and west through the gulf states to eastern Louisiana.

Habitat:  They vary from well-drained pine woods to comparatively moist areas near ponds or streams.  Coral snakes are secretive.  They hide under leaves or mulch and in logs or stumps, and even among blades of lawn grass.

Description:  The average length is around 20 inches.  Skins are bright with alternating red, yellow and black bands around the body.  The red bands touch the yellow bands.  In contrast, the coral snake’s non-venomous look-alikes, the scarlet kingsnake and the scarlet snake, have bands of black between their bands of yellow and red.  Coral snakes usually have a black nose.

Coral snake fangs are fixed front fangs (non-erectile).  The primarily neurotoxic venom affects the nervous system.  This snake is related to the Old World cobras, kraits and mambas.  While their disposition is rather mild, these snakes can bite when least expected, hanging on and chewing their fangs into the flesh.  The can however, inject venom from a single strike without chewing.

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