The coral snake is one of the most venomous snakes native to the Southeastern United States. The distinctive red, black, and yellow bands help make it easy to spot this snake.
The real problem is that there are nonvenomous snakes called scarlet king snakes that also have bands of the same colors. Learning to tell the difference can save a life.
So what is the difference between a king snake and a coral snake?
Coral snakes have red touching their yellow bands. Kingsnakes have black around their yellow bands.
Why Do They Look So Similar?
The appearance of the coral snake is an example of aposematic coloration. Many animals use bright colors to warn potential predators that they won’t make a good meal.
The most common colors for this are red, black, yellow, and white. Many animals use these colors to indicate that they are toxic or otherwise dangerous. Many poisonous frogs have this coloration, and even mammals like skunks and honey badgers use it to keep predators at bay.
Scarlet kingsnakes and the similarly colored scarlet snake can be found in much of the same territory as the coral snake. Both of these snakes exhibit similar coloring.
This makes them an example of Batesian mimicry. Batesian mimicry is well-known in butterflies and other insects. It is when a harmless species mimics a more dangerous one to help deter predators.
Many predators instinctively avoid red and yellow bands in snakes in areas where coral snakes are common. There is some debate on whether this mimicry helps kingsnakes since they have a wider range than coral snakes.
This paper goes over the topic and comes to interesting conclusions on how it has evolved in snakes.
Similarities Between Coral and Kingsnakes
In areas where the two snakes are found, it can be hard to tell them apart. They have similar diets and habits. For instance, both snakes eat lizards, amphibians, bird eggs, and even other snakes.
They are both diurnal and prefer hiding under leaf litter or logs.
They can be found in burrows or under rocks. Both snakes are also shy, and typically avoid humans if possible. In the Southeastern United States, they also share a coloration of red, black, and yellow in bands of color. Because of this, the two snakes are frequently confused.
Differences Between Them
One difference to note is in behavior. A coral snake will rarely leave the ground. A scarlet kingsnake is an accomplished climber. They can frequently be spotted climbing trees and bushes looking for bird nests. There is also a difference in defensive behavior. If you startle a kingsnake, it will likely rattle its tail to try to scare you off.
A coral snake will wiggle both its head and tail side to side. This is a behavior meant to confuse predators as to which end is the head. If a kingsnake bites, it tends to release quickly.
A coral snake will chew on you so it can inject its venom. The size is a big indicator as well. A scarlet kingsnake is tiny at less than 2 feet compared to the 4-5 feet a coral snake will reach.
The snout of the snakes and their heads are different. Coral snakes have short, rounded snouts that are primarily black in color. Kingsnakes have longer snouts and may have red or yellow on their head.
The quickest way to identify if the snake is venomous is by the order of the colors. Please note, this is only for North American species. Many other areas have different colors and patterns on coral snakes.
For kingsnakes, their yellow bands will be touching black. For coral snakes, the yellow will touch red. This is noted with many rhymes meant to teach people how to tell the snakes apart. One instance is “red touches yellow, kills a fellow; yellow touches black, venom lack”. You may have heard other variations with similar advice. This is a good way to remember if you are dealing with a coral snake or a harmless kingsnake. Just be sure not to try to handle a wild snake, and keep your distance. Even if they can’t kill you, kingsnakes can still bite.
How Dangerous Are Coral Snakes?
Coral snakes are considered one of the most venomous snakes in the world. If left untreated, the bite of an Eastern coral snake can cause cardiac arrest and muscular paralysis. Symptoms can be delayed in humans, but it will be dangerous if left alone.
However, coral snake bites account for about 2% of all snake bites.
This is partly because of their shy behavior. Coral snakes also have fixed fangs and a weak venom delivery system. They need to chew through a human’s skin to deliver venom.
Because of this, many bitten humans can knock the snake off before they get a dose of venom. You should still seek treatment since symptoms can take up to 13 hours to appear.
You won’t experience any intense pain or swelling even if you have been envenomated. Symptoms include muscle weakness, drooping eyes, slurred speech, nausea, and vomiting.
While there have been no recorded deaths since the development of antivenin, it is possible. If you or a pet have been bitten, seek help immediately.
Are There Other Species of Coral Snake?
There are three species of coral snake native to the United States.
The Arizona or Sonoran coral snake (Micruroides euryxanthus) is found in the southeastern US and Sonora, Mexico. The Eastern coral snake has the most severe bite and the Arizona/Sonoran coral snake isn’t even considered medically significant. There has never been a recorded fatality from them in humans.
Other Coral Snake Mimics
In the United Snakes, a few other snakes mimic the look of a coral snake. Some are even found in areas where the coral snake isn’t found or has gone extinct.
The scarlet snake and the Pueblan milk snake both resemble coral snakes found in their areas. The Sonoran Mountain kingsnake and the Western shovel-nosed snake both mimic the Sonoran coral snake native to the same area. Remember, knowing the region can help you identify what snake you are looking at.
Coral snakes and kingsnakes can easily be differentiated if you know what you are looking at. Even if you are certain that you are looking at a kingsnake, you should still leave wild snakes alone.
If one has entered an area it shouldn’t be, contact a local agency for safe snake removal. If you are bitten and can’t tell what snake bit you, seek medical attention.
Since the results of envenomation tend to be delayed, you could become very ill without treatment. If you have any questions or experiences with coral and kingsnakes, be sure to leave a comment below.
Everything you need to know about caring for King Snakes in captivity:
Read our California King Snake Care Sheet (Complete Guide)