Eastern Coral Snake (Harlequin Snake) Micrurus fulvius

Photo by Raymond Goushaw
Description: A strikingly beautiful animal with bright red, yellow and black bands circling the body. The coral snake's pattern starts with black on the forward part of the head, followed directly by a wide yellow band around the back of the head and then the sequence of black-yellow-red-yellow-black-etc continues until the base of the tail where the red disappears from the sequence and only the black and yellow remain. The red and black bands are approximately equal in width and are wider than the yellow bands by a factor of 5 or 6. The black bands are always a rich deep black and number from 14 to 19 on the body with 3 to 4 additional on the tail. The red can be quite variable in brightness, however, ranging from a dark red-brown to bright scarlet and number 12 to 17. 
     There is always some black flecking polluting the red, but this also varies greatly between specimens from almost absent to overwhelming. The yellow varies little in hue between specimens and is almost always a bright, rich golden yellow and is 1 1/2 to 2 scales wide.
     The coral snake's pattern and coloration is consistent throughout its range having no color morphs that deviate significantly from the basic pattern except for one form from South Florida, ostensibly classified as M.f.barbouri, where the red is twice as wide as normal and has greatly reduced or absent black flecking and the black bands are about half as wide as normal.

      Adult coral snakes can be from 20 to 48 inches long. They are usually quite a bit bigger than their reputation would suggest as typical adults are from 30  - 33 inches. This is not a tiny snake but can be fairly slender and so are usually longer than they might appear. Juvenile snakes are identical to adults in terms of coloration other than having slighter brighter colors. Males have slightly fewer body bands, in general, than females but have more tail bands due to a longer tail.

     Coral snakes are unremarkable in terms of body shape and construction. The head that is only slightly distinct from the neck in terms of width. This snake is built overall like many fossorial snakes.

     Coral Snakes are often confused with the Scarlet King Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum elapsoides) and sometimes with the Scarlet Snake (Cemophora coccinea). Both of these snakes seem to mimic the coral snakes pattern though the latter has white or gray bands and has a red head and actualy bears little resemblance to the coral snake. The Scarlet king Snake is closer in appearance, having similar coloration, but also has a red head and the black separates the red from the yellow instead of the yellow separating the red from the black. See the article Coral Snake Confusion for a better comparison.

     Coral snakes have smooth scales that are very shiny and fairly flat and number 15 rows throughout the length of the body. The ventrals number from 199 to 226. The subcaudals number 27 to 41 and are mostly divided with females having fewer subcaudals than males.

     It is often assumed that the pattern and coloration of a coral snake serves as a warning to would-be predators and there is some evidence to support this. The high-contrast coloration, however, is disruptive and is effective camoflage. Especially at night when the rich colors look more like shades of brown and gray.

Biology and Behavior: Coral snakes are elapids and are venomous. Being elapids they are proteroglyphous, which means they have short immovable fangs fixed at the front of the mouth. The fangs are extremely short, however, being suited to envenomating snakes and lizards. The venom of the Eastern Coral Snake is extremely potent and is predominantly neurotoxic, which is also better suited to its cold-blooded prey. Be advised that the venom can be quite deadly to humans, though they typically inject little venom per bite. Fortunately, coral snakes have very mild dispositions and are usually uninclined to bite unless handled carelessly or stepped on. Bites from coral snakes are extremely rare and almost always are suffered by people handling them. When approached, coral snakes will attempt to escape or, if cornered, will hide their heads and jerk their bodies suddenly from side to side in an attempt to thwart a would-be predator.

     There are some erroneous descriptions of coral snake biting behavior. Take care to note the following:

  • Coral snakes DO NOT have to bite between the fingers or on small folds of skin. They can bite anywhere on the body.
  • Coral snakes DO NOT have to chew to envenomate the target. They chew because chewing helps to get their fangs between the thick scales of their prey. "Chewing" during a defensive bite is simply programmatic behavior.

     Coral snakes are timid, fossorial and cryptic animals. They seldom come above ground to move, but do on occasion. Many studies and observations suggest that coral snakes are diurnal, with activity periods in the late morning and late afternoon. However, my personal observations are that they are also active at night, coming out very late to move, usually after midnight. Because they live under the soil most of the time they can be driven to the surface during heavy rains.

     Coral snakes feed on smaller snakes and lizards. They seem to be just as eager to eat either, but I have seen that they especially like glass lizards (Ophisaurus). Juveniles seem to have the same diets as the adults, though adults will occasionally take young rodents. In captivity, both adults and juveniles have been known to eat fish. Other data suggests that frogs may also be eaten in the wild.

     Animals in captivity will breed in spring and lay eggs in late spring to early summer. They are oviparous and clutch sizes have been recorded from  2 to 13 eggs, though they usually lay from 4 to 8 eggs. Males apparantly produce sperm in the fall and store it while the females are reproductively ready in the spring. Eggs are usually laid after 45 days amd the eggs will hatch about 60 days later.

     Coral snakes are very timid and can succumb to stress in captivity. Therefore there is little data on the longevity of these creatures.

Range and Locality Data: The Eastern Coral Snake ranges from southern North Carolina, south to the Florida Keys and west along the coast to eastern Louisiana. This is a coastal plains snake and has only discrete populations away from coastal plains habitats. It is extremely rare in North Carolina, but is quite abundant everywhere else in its range. It is especially common in coastal South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, though it is seldom seen due to its cryptic lifestyle.

     Coral snakes prefer pine and scrub oak habitats where the soil is pourous and there is ample ground cover. Prime coral snake habitat will also have an abundabce of palmettos and sand. Coral snakes in the wild have been uncovered by raking through pine straw and other ground cover as well as by breaking apart cabbage palm and palmetto husks. They seem to have little aversion to human activity in general, and are frequently encountered around residences and agriculture.

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