Texas Coral Snake
Last summer I came across a road-killed Texas coral snake (Micrurus fulvius tenere) about 1 mile from our camp. I knew of their presence in the area, but the chances of seeing one were pretty slim since they’re a secretive lot preferring to burrow underground and under swathes of pine straw. In fact there have been reports of coral snakes being plowed up by farmers in their fields. (1) This reptile belongs in the family Elipidae along with mambas, cobras, and kraits which should get anyone’s attention.
It doesn’t have the large triangular head, retractable fangs, elliptical pupils, heat sensing pits, or the aggressive temperament of the pit vipers (Crotalinae). It actually appears innocuous in its harlequin-like colors, in such a way that you want to pick it up to admire its beauty. These colors though are meant as a stern warning to stay away. With this is mind, other snakes such as the mountain kingsnake, scarlet kingsnake, milk snake, and scarlet snake, mimic the coral snake not in exact band order, but with bands consisting of similar colors that confuse would be predators aiding in their own survival. Sayings (mnemonics) are abound using catchy rhymes to help the uneducated differentiate between coral snakes and the nonpoisonous mimics. “Red and yellow kill a fellow”, “Red and black, friend of Jack”, and “Red on black, venom lack” are a few examples. Though meek in appearance the coral snake’s venom should be taken very seriously. Most people think of the diamondback rattlesnake as being the most potent of the four poisonous snakes found in this country, but few know of its venom’s strength……. it’s four times as potent as that of the diamondback. It can’t inject the large volumes of venom like the pit vipers, but being more potent means it takes less. Once it latches on it begins to writhe like a dog gone mad, chewing with the small fixed fangs in its upper jaw in order to inject its neurotoxic venom. After the bite is complete, unlike the pit vipers hemotaoxic venom, there’s no immediate pain, massive swelling, or tissue destruction, but soon to follow are its systemic effects, which could lead to serious consequences- respiratory failure and death. Just because it’s pretty, doesn’t mean it’s nice.
1) There are species of coral snakes in other countries that do not possess the red, yellow and black bands, the bands are in a different order, or don’t have bands at all. Check them out: Aquatic coral snake, South American coral snake, Langsdorff's coral snake, Cattinga coral snake, Pygmy coral snake, Variable coral snake, Brazilian coral snake, Desert coral snake, Regal coral snake, Southern coral snake, Amazonian coral snake.
2) Diet consists of lizards, ground skinks, small snakes (ex. rough earth, ring-necked, ground, red-bellied).
3) Other common names- American cobra, candy-stick, thunder-and-lightning snake, viper, coral adder.
4) Oviparous- meaning it is an egg layer.
5) It will use its tail as a distraction to predators by flattening it and waving it back and forth “like a menacing head”. This is all while its true head is protected beneath its coils.
6) Coral snake bite symptoms.
7) To read about someone's experience after being bitten by a coral snake: Part I and Part II.
8) One must be very cautious around poisonous snakes – even recently killed ones. Though dead it doesn’t mean it can’t still bite- yep you heard right. The “strike and bite reflex” of a snake that's been recently killed can still remain active for awhile following death. Even if it’s a detached head you could still be bitten. (2)
(1) Handbook of Snakes of the United States and Canada Vol. II. A.H. Wright and A. A. Wright. © 1994 Cornell University. Pp. 890-899.