Micrurus fulvius Photo Fiona Sunquist ©
This small, smooth, brightly colored snake has a slender body, small, blunt head and round pupils. The maximum length is 3 foot 9 inches, but more commonly it is about 30 inches (76.2 cm). The diagnostic feature is a black-tipped nose and a broad yellow band across the back of the head and neck. Along the body narrow yellow bands separate wider bands of black and yellow.
The old saying “Red touches yellow, kill a fellow” can be used to separate the coral snake from its non-venomous colubrid mimics, the scarlet kingsnake and the scarlet snake. In the latter two species, the bands are similarly colored but red bands touch black bands. (Red touches black, friend of Jack”).
Coral snakes are quite common in many habitats but are secretive. They live in rotting logs and decaying vegetation and are sometimes found around houses by people raking leaves or digging in compost piles. They are mainly diurnal in Florida, hunting in the early morning shortly after sunrise until about 9:00 am. They are most commonly seen on sunny mornings.
Coral snakes feed on other snakes, skinks, and lizards, particularly glass lizards. While hunting, they crawl slowly, poking and probing with their head, tongue flickering all the time. They do not have an efficient strike, but typically hold onto prey, sometimes making side-to-side chewing motions, until the venom immobilizes the prey.
Experiments have shown that coral snakes can recognize the head end of its prey and it will reorient the prey until it is in a position to be swallowed headfirst. Even when provoked, coral snakes hardly ever strike like other snakes, and people are rarely bitten by this non-aggressive species. However, when pinned down a coral snake will strike rapidly in a sideways motion.
Though coral snake venom is highly dangerous, small coral snakes have a hard time biting large animals because they have very short fangs. Adult snakes have fangs that measure 1.6 to 2.7 mm long. The coral snake’s neurotoxic venom is more virulent than the venom of other snakes in North America. The venom attacks the nervous system, primarily the respiratory center. Coral snakes can deliver serious bites – 20% of bites to humans are fatal. However, there is an effective anti venom. In Florida, coral snakes are seen most often in March-April and October-November. THESE SNAKES SHOULD NOT BE HANDLED.
Coral snakes breed in late spring. During May and June, females lay a single clutch of six sausage-shaped eggs, underground or in leaf litter. The one and a half-inch long eggs hatch in late summer or early fall. Newly hatched coral snakes are about six or seven inches long, but double their size in less than two years.
Despite their conspicuous warning coloration, coral snakes are preyed upon by king snakes, kestrels and hawks. One was even found in the stomach of a large bullfrog. However, would-be predators sometimes discover that this snake has warning coloration for good reason. K. Brugger of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service saw an adult male red-tailed hawk land on Paynes Prairie, carrying a 30-inch coral snake in its talons. As she watched, the bird ‘became progressively uncoordinated and unresponsive and finally collapsed.’ When Brugger examined the dead hawk she found it had several small punctures in its feet and legs.
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