How Poisonous are Coral Snakes?

Coral snakes may be small, but these brightly colored snakes are highly venomous and only considered less dangerous than rattlesnakes because they don’t have a particularly good poison-delivery system.

How Poisonous are Coral Snakes?

As a member of the Elapidae family, Coral snakes are available in many different species. They range throughout America, with most being found in Central and South America.

The Eastern Coral Snake is found along the Florida and Georgia coasts.

In fact, there are three types of Coral Snakes which are more common –

  • the eastern coral snake found in Florida and the southeast.
  • the Texas coral snake found in Texas and Northwestern Mexico.
  • the Sonoran coral snake found in the South-eastern US and the state of Sonora, Mexico.

Something that the Coral snake has in common with other elapids is that they are front-fanged snakes, just like Mambas, Taipans, and Cobras.

They are the only North American snakes in the cobra family.

The kind of prey that the Coral snake enjoys are frogs, lizards, and mice and sometimes a snake too.

The Coral snake is known as an ophiophagous snake, which means ‘snake eater’.


What is the Coral Snake?

The Coral Snake is a slender snake, measuring more or less 20 inches in length. There are some species that can reach 3 feet in length.

Bright eye-catching colors are a characteristic of this fascinating creature.

You could say that the characteristic that stands out most with the Coral Snake is its distinctive skin pattern and vibrant, bright coloring – the red, yellow and black stripes around the body.

It often happens in nature that you get a bright colored creature which is indicative of it being very poisonous.

So it is with the coral snake. This is a very poisonous snake and its venom is neurotoxic and deadly.

Coral Snake ‘Look-Alikes’

The animal- and plant kingdom is fascinating because you might get other animals that aren’t poisonous or dangerous, but they actually develop similar colors and patterns.

They become look-alikes. So you get snakes that look very similar to the coral snake, but they aren’t in the least bit venomous.

A typical example of a snake which mimics the colorful coral snake is the Scarlet King Snake. Meeting one, you’d immediately think you were in the presence of a Coral Snake.

A clever way to tell the difference and to know for certain which snake is which is to look at the snake’s ring pattern.

With a coral snake, the red and yellow rings are always next to each other. With a coral snake, the ring pattern is red, yellow, black, yellow red, but with the Scarlet King Snake, the ring pattern is red, black, yellow, black and red.

Sometimes you get some blue as well.

Another good way to identify the coral snake is by its head, which is blunt and black.

Not an Aggressive Snake

Like most snakes, the Coral Snake just wants to be left in peace. It’s a nocturnal snake and is reclusive. People don’t often come into contact with coral snakes because they are more active at night.

When it’s provoked, the snake, out of agitation, expels air from its cloaca, making popping sounds. This is to ‘startle’ the ‘threat’ and make it move away.

The Coral snake should be left alone. It’s not an aggressive snake and will only bite when you irritate it.

When you’re outdoors, particularly in the wilds, be careful around leafy areas and logs. Coral snakes like to spend time under logs, among leaves, and in rocky areas.

Western coral snakes, on the other hand, live primarily in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Northern Mexico. They live under rocks or they like to burrow into the sand.

The Baby Corals – as Venomous as the Parents

Another interesting aspect of this venomous snake is that it is the only venomous snake in North America that lay eggs. The other species will give birth to live baby snakes.

The babies that emerge from the eggs are as venomous as the parents from the day they slither out into the world.

A Poor Venom-Delivery System

The venom of the Coral snake is neurotoxic, and they have a different way of delivering it. They require a chewing action to inject the venom, and the severity of its bite will be determined by the volume of venom injected and the size and health of the victim.

Unlike other venomous snakes, the Coral snake doesn’t retract its fangs into the mouth and they are constantly erect. The fangs of the snake are small and hollow and positioned at the front of the mouth.

The fangs have a small groove and the venom enters the base of the fangs.

The fangs, because they are small, are actually not particularly effective for venom delivery.

The Coral snake therefore bites and holds onto its prey, making those chewing motions already mentioned so as to hold onto the prey and to deliver its toxin.

The toxin affects the nervous system, the venom brings about muscle paralysis. As the venom moves through the body, the person who has been bitten begins to have difficulty with breathing. Without help, the person can die.

Deaths Have Occurred with the Snake’s Bite

There has been a documented death.

Inocencio Hernandez-Hernandez (aged 29, male) June 10, 2006 The first person to die in the United States from a Coral snake bite since 1967. Coming from Florida, he was bitten by the same snake he tried to kill.

Last year, 2018, Central Florida saw a spike in Coral snake bites, with no less than 4 people being bitten by the venomous reptile. Anti-venom was available in several hospitals to treat these 4 people.

It seems as though some of the 4 people involved were attracted to the bright colors of the snake, thinking them to be the non-venomous Kingsnake.

They wanted a photograph of themselves with the snake to post onto Facebook. One person was bitten while holding the snake.

How to Tell the Difference Between a Poisonous Coral Snake & a Non-Poisonous King Snake

Some Facts on the Coral Snake’s Bite

  • An average of about 47 bites from Coral snakes to humans is reported to Florida Poison Centers each year.
  • The victim of a coral snake bite does have time to get to a hospital because the onset of symptoms usually starts during the first 2 – 6 hours after a bite. Symptoms include nausea and vomiting, slurred speech, sweating profusely, muscle aches, battling to breathe, and in some rare cases cardiac arrest and death.
  • There was a time before anti-venom was developed in 1967, that a person may not have stood the chance of surviving a coral snake bite. Since that time, if anti-venom is given as soon as possible, a person can make a recovery.
  • People who aren’t familiar with the Coral snake and its bite might think that the bite of this snake is nothing to get worked up about. This is because of the slowness of the venom in ‘taking hold’. This is unlike the Black Mamba for instance. It’s one of the world’s deadliest snakes, and extremely toxic. Unlike the Coral Snake, Mambas are highly aggressive when threatened and just 2 drops of their venom can kill a human. A fatality can occur within 20 minutes.
  • It can also take about 48 hours for the venom of the Coral Snake to reach maximum effect.
  • All snake bites will require attention, even if the snake is non-venomous. This is to prevent infection. There will probably be blood at the puncture site. This means that the  skin has been broken and possible envenomation has occurred. This mild sign is precisely what leads a person to think that no damage has been done and there is no need to seek medical attention.
  • A person who has been bitten by a Coral snake can face a long stint in hospital on ventilator support. They can face pneumonia and organ failure. Long term rehabilitation may also be necessary for neuromuscular damage. There are cases where anti-venom was delayed and where symptoms progressed to paralysis.
  • Coral snake anti-venom is an equine-derived IgG. The anti-venom prevents progression of symptoms and doesn’t reverse any neurologic signs that have already occurred.
  • The trouble with the Coral Snake is that too many people assume that this colorful snake is the non-venomous Scarlet Kingsnake. People shouldn’t be careless about the identification of snakes – as it can be fatal.
  • If you’re a hiker without any knowledge of snakes or you’re a skilled herpetologist, you have to take precautions. Many herpetologists have been bitten and paid the ultimate price for being too familiar with the snakes they handle. If you’re bitten by a snake, it is important to get help immediately and to also try and identify the snake.

If you suspect that you’ve been bitten by a Coral Snake, don’t wait around, call the emergency number 911 or get hold of some other kind of emergency services immediately.

There’s No Need to Fear Snakes – they require Respect

Snakes aren’t creatures that should be feared. They just need to be treated with the utmost respect and you should never become too familiar with the venomous ones.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and a cold-blooded reptile is a wild creature that can turn on you any time if provoked.

Snakes simply need to be left alone and respected as they are fascinating creatures that have a valuable role to play in nature and our lives.


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