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Coral Snakes: Brightly Banded and Highly Venomous

Coral snake
The eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) is highly venomous and lives in a variety of habitats throughout the southeastern United States. The scarlet snake (Cemophora coccinea) and scarlet kingsnake (Lampropeltis elapsoides) have similar color bands, but are harmless mimics. Mark Kostich/Getty Images

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In late 2018, Florida news outlets reported a troubling rash of reptilian attacks in a surprisingly short time span: Four people sustained coral snake bites in just two weeks. In all four cases, however, the victims were bitten after they'd "picked up the snakes for either photos or to look at them more closely." One victim specifically "took a photo of the snake, posted it to Facebook and then got bit while still holding it."

While it's nice to imagine most people would have better judgement around potentially venomous creatures, it's worth wondering whether coral snakes are blood-thirsty biters or if they're just hermits who snap when they don't have enough space.

Are Coral Snakes Venomous?

"Coral snakes are in the family Elapidae, which is the same family as cobras, mambas and kraits," says Coleman M. Sheehy III, Ph.D., who works in the division of herpetology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, in an email interview. "So, they have strong venom that is dangerous to humans and other animals. However, they are not aggressive and prefer to hide most of the time. Thus, bite cases in humans are relatively rare throughout most of their distribution. Safety includes things like leaving them alone when one is seen and not trying to catch or kill them."

That may sound like common sense behavior, but, well, we just discussed what happened in Florida. The Sunshine State isn't the only home for coral snakes, though. "There are coral snake species found all over the world," Sheehy says. "Over 80 species live throughout the Neotropics (North, Central and South America). The various species live in a wide variety of habitats ranging from wet forests to deserts."

Coral snakes are separated into two groups: Old World (found in Asia) and New World (found in the Americas). "New World coral snakes are found from southern Arizona continuously through to Florida along the southeastern U.S.," says Ian Recchio, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Los Angeles Zoo, by email. "There are three species that occur in the U.S.: the Arizona (or Sonoran) coral snake, Texas coral snake and Eastern coral snake. But coral snake diversity reaches its apex in Latin America, which has well over 100 species!"

While most species of coral snakes are tri-colored combinations of red, black and yellow (or white) rings, there's a lot of variety among the three U.S. species. "The Sonoran coral snakes are very secretive and more nocturnal, but also more commonly encountered during and after heavy rains," says Brett Baldwin, animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo, in an email. "Sonoran coral snake venom is likely the most toxic snake venom in the U.S. Texas coral snakes are secretive, slender, fossorial [burrowing] and usually encountered in the early morning or evening but also at night. They are often more active during and after heavy rains and inhabit wooded areas and rocky areas, hills and canyons. Their venom may be slow acting so may take several hours before there is any reaction. Eastern coral snakes commonly are encountered during early mornings. They occur in a variety of habitats — piney forests, wet areas around ponds and lakes, and in open sandy areas."

"All coral snakes are slender, shiny skinned with small eyes," Recchio says. "They are all highly venomous and possess a neurotoxic venom. Many are brightly colored and banded in pattern. Red is a common color of many coral snakes, and most are small under 12 inches (30.48 cm), but a few can reach over 24 inches (61 centimeters)."

But the biggest question most people have is whether these bright, cylindrical bodied creatures are on a mission to kill. They are — but they're not on the hunt for human flesh.

What Do Coral Snakes Eat?

"Coral snakes mostly feed on lizards and other snakes, which they kill using their venom," Sheehy says.

"All coral snakes possess a highly potent neurotoxic venom and should never be touched," Recchio says. "Some species of coral snakes are so small that it's believed their fangs are too small to penetrate human skin — though handling a coral snake is never recommended regardless of its diminutive size!"

In the event that you do manage to find, irritate and incite a coral snake to sink its fangs into your skin, get help ASAP (aka don't wait around and post about the event on Facebook first). "Take all bites seriously and get medical attention immediately," Baldwin says. "Coral snake antivenom is very effective. There has only been one reported death from a coral snake bite in the U.S. since the development of the antivenom in the 1960s, in 2009 when an eastern coral snake bite victim did not seek medical attention."

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