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Meet the Coral Snake: One of North America’s Most Venomous Snakes

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A couple of coral snake sayings are easy to remember:

Red on Yellow Kill a fellow      … A coral snake
Red on black … a friend of Jack      … Not a coral snake
Red to black, venom lack      … Not a coral snake
Red and yellow will kill a fellow      … a coral snake
Red on black, you’re OK jack      … Not a coral snake
Red on yellow, you’re a dead fellow      … a coral snake

Coral snakes (in the U.S., they are only found in Florida) are straightforward to recognize with their distinctive coloration. They have alternating red, yellow and black bands, with both black and red bands delimited by short yellow bands.

Most coral snakes are shorter than 40 inches (1 meter). Because of their little size, their fangs are undersized too, especially when compared to fangs in other venomous species, such as cottonmouths and copperheads. That is why it is sometimes difficult for coral snake fangs to penetrate the epidermis of animals it intends to swallow.

Other snakes with alternating yellow and red bands without black bands on the edge exist, but they are not original North American coral snakes.

Coral Snake picture

Coral Snake picture

Florida Coral Snake

It is the only Elapid in the USA (see its skull on the homepage). Its major defensive asset is its colorful bands of red, black, and yellow that is very distinctive so that other animals know what snake it is. Non-venomous snakes mimicits colors;the milk snake is a common snake which has this color. They like to live beneath things and are rather reclusive and timid. Only a few coral snake fatalities have been recorded; around two deaths from coral snake bites in the last 25 years in the USA.

Identifying a Coral Snake

If you want to learn how to identify a coral snake, there are a few key things to keep in mind. First, it’s important to understand that coral snakes have distinct banding patterns on their bodies. The bands are wide and completely encircle the body, with red and black bands separated by slightly narrower yellow bands. Red bands often have black speckles, and the yellow and red bands touch each other.

It’s also important to note that there are several non-venomous snakes that look like coral snakes. These include the mountain kingsnake, the scarlet kingsnake, milk snakes, and scarlet snakes. One way to tell the difference is to remember the rhyme “Red touch yellow, kill a fellow; red touch black, friend of Jack.” In other words, if you see yellow bands touching red bands, it’s a coral snake and you should stay away. If you see red bands touching black bands, it’s a non-venomous mimic and you don’t need to worry.

If you’re not sure whether you’re looking at a coral snake or a mimic, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and avoid the snake altogether. Remember, coral snakes are shy and reclusive, so it’s unlikely that you’ll encounter one unless you’re specifically looking for it.


The Florida Coral Snake has a diverse range, spanning from southeastern North Carolina to extreme eastern Louisiana. They prefer well-drained, sandy soil with areas of open ground, which are typically found in longleaf pine stands, sandhills, and pine flatwoods. These vibrant serpents cannot tolerate low-lying areas or wet soils.

Despite occupying a variety of habitats, they can often be found beneath debris or under woodpiles in locations with some protection from flooding. Coral snakes are also frequently found close to a water resource, as they forage at watershores. Their versatility in habitat makes them an interesting species to observe and learn about.


coral snake Diet

The Florida Coral Snake is not only a fascinating predator with a diverse diet, but also a relatively small species that doesn’t require a large amount of food to survive. These skilled hunters prey on smaller snakes, lizards, skinks, and even other coral snakes, and are always on the prowl for their next meal, even cannibalizing juvenile coral snakes. However, they also feed on a wide variety of other creatures including amphibians, birds, and invertebrates, playing an important role in the ecosystem by keeping populations of smaller animals in check.

While nutrition is important for the overall health of coral snakes, it does not appear to affect their distinctive coloration. The red, yellow, and black banding on coral snakes is genetically determined and remains the same regardless of diet or environmental factors. Nonetheless, a balanced diet that includes a variety of prey items can help ensure that captive coral snakes receive all the necessary nutrients. It is recommended to feed them appropriately-sized prey items every 5-7 days, with the frequency of feeding varying based on temperature, season, and availability of prey in the wild.


Coral snakes are fascinating creatures with a unique and intriguing set of behaviors. As nocturnal predators, they spend most of their time in hiding during the day and emerge at night to hunt for food. They are known for their distinctive and colorful banding, which serves as a warning to potential predators of their toxic venom.

When threatened, coral snakes may become defensive and raise their tails, exposing their bright colors and warning potential predators of their danger. They may also release a pungent odor as a form of defense.

Interestingly, coral snakes are known to be cannibalistic, sometimes even feeding on other coral snakes. They also have a unique hunting style, which involves holding onto their prey until the pressure from the struggling animal causes venom to be released from the snake’s glands.

In captivity, coral snakes can be rather shy and may spend most of their time hiding. However, with proper care and handling, they can become more comfortable and less likely to hide. It’s important to note that coral snakes should only be handled by experienced individuals, as their venom can be extremely dangerous.

Coral Snake Bite

Coral Snake Bite

The coral snake’s bite is a potentially deadly encounter, and it is important to seek immediate medical attention if bitten. When threatened, a coral snake will bite and hold on, injecting venom with each bite. The venom contains neurotoxins that can cause severe neurological symptoms, including respiratory paralysis, within hours of the bite.

One of the interesting facts about coral snakes is that they have to squeeze their own venom glands to release their venom. This means that they have to hold on to their prey for a period of time to discharge their venom into the animal. In humans, a coral snake bite can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, slurred speech, double vision, and paralysis.

Small animals are most at risk of dying from a coral snake bite, as they require only a small amount of venom to be paralyzed. However, humans, including children, can also fall victim to coral snake bites. Children are often attracted to the bright colors of the coral snake, and their thin skin makes them more vulnerable to snake fangs.

In the event of a coral snake bite, it is essential to seek immediate medical treatment and hospitalization. Antivenom is available, but it is crucial to receive it as soon as possible to prevent serious or fatal complications. With proper medical care, most individuals who are bitten by a coral snake will make a full recovery.

Coral Snake Venom

The venom of the coral snake is a potent neurotoxin that can cause various symptoms in humans. These include nausea, vomiting, abnormal sensations, slurred speech, double vision, and ptosis. In severe cases, the venom can lead to weakness and paralysis, starting with the respiratory system.

In severe cases, the venom from a coral snake causes weakness and paralysis (Heard et al. 1999)1. Paralysis begins in the respiratory system, but because of its secretive lifestyle, there can be a year in between serious coral snake injuries. According to an article by Norris MD (2006)2, less than one percent of snake bites in the USA are from coral snakes, and most pass unnoticed by authorities and newspapers.

It is crucial to seek medical attention immediately if you suspect a coral snake bite.

Life Cycle

Life Cycle coral snake

The life cycle of the coral snake is truly fascinating! These colorful creatures are known for laying their eggs in the open, usually between usually lays 3 to 5 eggs in June or July. A typical female coral snake can lay between 3-12 eggs at a time, which will hatch 2-3 months later in September or October.

When the juvenile snakes hatch, they are usually less than 23cm in length and resemble adult snakes in their striking red, yellow, and black coloration. As they grow, coral snakes can reach maturity within just a few months, with their life cycle spanning between 6 months to 2 years.

Coral snakes are oviparous, meaning that they reproduce by laying eggs rather than giving birth to live young. The young neonates are entirely dependent on themselves once they hatch and must quickly learn how to hunt and survive in their environment.

Despite their small size and delicate appearance, coral snakes are fascinating predators that play an important role in their ecosystem. As they grow and develop, these snakes become skilled hunters, preying on smaller snakes, lizards, skinks, and even other coral snakes, helping to keep populations of smaller animals in check.

Considerations for Keeping a Coral Snake as a Pet

As a highly venomous species, keeping a coral snake as a pet is not recommended for inexperienced or amateur reptile keepers. In many states and countries, it is also illegal to own a coral snake as a pet without the appropriate permits and licenses.

However, for experienced keepers, a captive-bred coral snake can make an interesting and challenging pet. Coral snakes require specific environmental conditions and diets to thrive in captivity. They need a spacious enclosure with hiding places, climbing branches, and a temperature gradient to regulate their body temperature. A substrate of damp soil or coconut fiber can also provide the necessary humidity for healthy shedding.

Feeding a pet coral snake can also be challenging, as they require a diet of live prey such as mice, small lizards, or other small snakes. It is important to ensure that the prey items are appropriately sized for the snake and that they are killed before being offered to the snake to avoid injury.

Captive coral snakes also require regular health checks and veterinary care to ensure their continued well-being. If you are considering owning a coral snake as a pet, it is crucial to research and prepare thoroughly to provide the appropriate care and environment for this fascinating but potentially dangerous species.

Coral Snake Rhymes

There is a rhyme that can help you to identify a coral snake.

“Red on yellow, kill a fellow”

This means what it says, but the likelihood of actually succumbing from a coral snake bite is diminutive. It is not a coral snake when you can say: If red touches black, it is a friend of Jack.


Can a human survive a coral snake bite?

While survival is possible with prompt and appropriate medical treatment, a coral snake bite can be life-threatening and requires immediate attention. The venom of a coral snake can cause respiratory failure and paralysis, leading to death in some cases. Therefore, seeking medical assistance is crucial in case of a coral snake bite.

Where are coral snakes found in the US?

Coral snakes are found in the southeastern United States, primarily in Florida, as well as parts of Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Georgia. They prefer wooded or marshy areas and can also be found in residential neighborhoods with suitable habitat. If you are in an area where coral snakes are present, it is important to take precautions and be aware of your surroundings to avoid any potential encounters.

How long do you have after a coral snake bite?

While significant envenomation from a coral snake bite is rare, it is important to seek medical attention immediately. The potential for life-threatening respiratory insufficiency can occur, with a delay of up to 13 hours. Therefore, close observation is necessary for at least 12-24 hours after a reported exposure to a coral snake.


In conclusion, the coral snake is a fascinating and elusive species known for its distinctive coloration and potent venom. Despite their danger, they play an important role in their ecosystem and are crucial for maintaining balance in their habitat. It is crucial to be aware of their venomous nature and take precautions to avoid being bitten.

If you’re interested in learning more about coral snakes or other venomous snakes, be sure to check out the VenomousSnakes blog for further information and resources. Remember, with the right knowledge and respect for these creatures, we can coexist safely and appreciate their unique and important place in the natural world.


1Heard et al. “Antivenom Therapy in the Americas”, Drugs Vol. 58(1): pp. 5-15 (1999)
2Norris, MD “Coral snake bites”, eMedicine December 2011


Snakes of Georgia and South Carolina
Eastern Coral Snake