Coral snakes are biological relatives of cobras and mambas, and more than 70 species of these venomous snakes are found in the world. Coral snakes earn their appellation from the coral-red bands encircling the bodies of most species. These small serpents have potent venom, but they aren't aggressive and deaths from their bites are quite rare.
Range and Habitat
Every continental nation has a coral snake population, with the exceptions of Chile and Canada. Most coral snakes live in rain forests, but they can also thrive in deserts, swamps and forests. Approximately 60 species of coral snakes live in the Americas, but only two are common within the United States. The common coral snake (Mircrurus fulvius) ranges from northeastern Mexico to Florida and can reach lengths of 4 feet. The Sonoran coral snake (Micruroides euryxanthus) averages 1 1/2 feet in length and makes its home in Arizona, New Mexico and northwest Mexico.
Coral snakes are nocturnal predators, though they're sometimes active during overcast days. They feed on lizards, other snakes and frogs as their jaws are too small to engulf large prey. Coral snakes mate during the late spring and early summer. Females lay clutches of three to 14 eggs, which hatch after about 10 to 12 weeks. Feared as they are, coral snakes aren't aggressive. They coil and raise their tails when threatened, seeking to protect their heads through this diversion.
The snake's venom is a neurotoxin that disrupts the brain's ability to communicate with the body's muscles. It can eventually lead to respiratory and cardiac paralysis, and death. The coral snake has tiny, hollow fangs that aren't retractable like those of pit vipers. Its small teeth and weak jaws compel it to chew its victim's flesh rather than delivering a single bite, and while these bites aren't very painful, they inject a considerable amount of venom into the prey's bloodstream. A victim of the bite may slur his speech, experience double vision, and eventually succumb to paralysis. As of 2011, America has had no reported death from coral snake bites since pharmaceutical companies introduced antivenin in 1967.
Coral snakes in the Americas have thick red bands, alternating with black bands bordered by white or yellow rings, and all of these bands completely encircle the snake. Other snake species, such as the false coral snake (Simpohis rhinostoma) mimic coral snake coloring. The imposters usually lack the white or yellow bands, and the bands don't extend to their bottom half. This coloration is called Bates' mimeticism, an evolutionary adaptation in harmless snakes that makes predators think they've encountered a potentially lethal snake.
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