Coral snakes (Micrurus fulvius tenere) are one of the easiest species of snakes that can be recognized because of the colorful bands of red, black, and white on their body. These snakes are non-aggressive in nature and bite only when provoked. They are found very commonly in the northern parts of the United States, and also in a few parts in south-eastern North Carolina, Texas, and Mexico.
Coral snakes are relatives of the cobra, and their bites, though very dangerous, are less fatal when compared to the bites of the cobra or the rattlesnake.
The average length of this snake is between 24 and 30 inches, while that of the hatchlings can range from 7 to 11 inches. The head is usually not much wider than the body, which is cylindrical, and the body is covered with shiny scales. Usually, the count of the scales around the mid-body is 21 – 23.
The body is circled with black, red, and white (in some cases, off-white or pale yellow). The bands vary in width, which often depends on the population. Further, the red bands can vary in shade from blood-red to orange, right up to pink. Sometimes, the black bands widen and cross over the red bands on the back of the snake’s body. These bands continue across the belly, but the color is a little paler, faded in appearance, and slightly irregular. The nose is usually black, and may contain a few blotches of red in some cases. This is followed by the white band.
When a red band is followed by two black bands, the combination is referred to a ‘triad’. Triad counts are one of the methods that are used along with the location of the first white ring to determine subspecies.
Coral snakes, by nature, are rather elusive and nocturnal, and spend a major portion of their life buried in the ground or in the leaf litter. They come out only during the rainy season or when it is time to breed. When it is disturbed, it often lays its head out of sight and rattles its flattened tail which produces a popping sound.
The diet consists of amphibians, reptiles, snakes, and small lizards. These snakes are also the only poisonous snakes in America that lay eggs. Eggs are laid in clutches of 2 to 3.
Coral snakes are not very aggressive creatures, rather, they are reclusive and they bite only when provoked. Most bites occur because of accidental handling of the snake during gardening or when small children pick it up after being attracted by its colors. As these snakes are pretty small in size, they have small fangs, and their bites are frequently ineffective. They have difficulty in penetrating thick clothes and shoes. The fangs are fixed to the front of their top jaw. As the venom takes a little time to take effect, these snakes have the tendency of holding on to the victim after biting it.
Despite the small fangs, the coral snakes are very venomous which is a powerful neurotoxin and is capable of killing an adult. The estimated fatality rate was 10% in the United States before the coral snake anti-venom was made available. Fortunately, since the availability of the anti-venom, no deaths related to coral snake bites have been reported.
Please be aware that any bite from a coral snake has to be considered life-threatening, and immediate treatment should be made available, as when the neurotoxin takes effect, it can cause the neurotransmitters between the brain and the muscles to malfunction. The initial symptoms will be slurred speech, difficulty in swallowing, and double vision. These symptoms quickly progress to a respiratory arrest and a cardiac failure, which ultimately causes the death of the victim. Further, you must remember that various anti-venoms are available for the various species of coral snakes, and not one type of anti-venom can treat the bites from all the species. This makes the treatment rather difficult and expensive.