When Identifying Coral Snakes

Indigo Expeditions Wildlife Research & Endangered Species Conservation in Guatemala

When Identifying Coral Snakes

When identifying coral snakes we often think of  ‘red to black venom lack, red to yellow kill a fellow’. This simple rhyme originated in the United States where it can be successfully used to identify the two native species of coral snake. However once you travel south of the Mexican border it can become deadly.

We’ll discuss how to safely identify coral snakes in the rest of the Americas.

The coral snakes of the Americas are beautifully coloured snakes that have alternating bands of red to orange, yellow to white, and black. They get their name from the bright red bands which reminded early European settlers of the amazing red coral beads they had seen being worn by the locals. Coral snakes are found throughout the Americas, from the Southeastern and Southwestern United States in the north, through Central American and into Central Argentina in the south.

As currently understood, there are an incredible 82 species of coral snake in the Americas.

Their bright colours and the fact that coral snakes are highly venomous has led to creation of rhyme to help people identify these snakes from other harmless ones.

The ‘red to black venom lack, red to yellow kill a fellow’ rhyme originated in the US to help people correctly identify the two species of coral snake found there. In Spanish speaking countries of the Americas people often use the acronym RANA to identify a coral snake. It stands for Rojo, Amarillo, Negro, Amarillo, which translates as Red, Yellow, Black, Yellow, so again the red touches yellow. In many coral snake species this works well, for example classically coloured species such as the Central American coral snake (Micrurus nigrocinctus) and Allen’s coral snake (Micrurus alleni).

However when you start to look a little deeper, the picture gets rather confusing.

This is well illustrated in Guatemala by the variable coral snake (Micrurus diastema), which in most cases fits the rhyme, red bands touch yellow, however, in some individuals of the same species, yellow bands are absent so red touches black, and in others the bands are absent altogether except for a single black band around the neck – again red touches black. In other coral snakes, such as the elegant coral snake (Micrurus elegans), red always touches black, which could lead to a dangerous encounter.

And thats just the coral snakes.

In the tropical regions of the America’s there are many species of harmless snakes that look like coral snakes, some of which like the false coral snake (Pliocercus elapoides) have banding patterns where red touches yellow. Because of this, it can be easy to think you are looking at a coral snake, when in fact it is a harmless look-a-like!

 So that begs the question:

How do you safely tell a coral snake from one of its mimics?

Here are my three top tips, with one BIG caveat!

1 Look at the tail

Do the red bands continue all the way down the body to the tip of the tail? If they do then the snake you are looking at is highly likely to be a mimic. In most, but not all species, the red bands on coral snakes stop at the rear portion of the body which only has black and yellow bands. There is also at least one mimic that also only has these colour patterns on the tail – the yellow form of the terrestrial snail-eating snake which has black and yellow bands all the way down its body.

Indigo Expeditions Wildlife Research & Endangered Species Conservation in Guatemala

You can see the red bands on this mimic false coral snake – Pliocercus elapoides continue to the end of the tail.

Indigo Expeditions Wildlife Research & Endangered Species Conservation in Guatemala

The last portion of the body and tail of the true coral snake lack red bands, as shown in the variable coral snake – Micrurus diastema.

2 Look at the eyes

The eyes of a coral snake are really really small. If you can see the eyes clearly then it is probably a mimic that you are looking at. Obviously, this is quite difficult to do, particularly if the snake is moving.

Indigo Expeditions Wildlife Research & Endangered Species Conservation in Guatemala

See how the eyes are really large on the mimic false coral snake – Pliocercus elapoides.

Indigo Expeditions Wildlife Research & Endangered Species Conservation in Guatemala

With the true coral snake, the Central American coral snake Micrurus nigrocinctus for example, the eyes are very small.

3 Look at the bands

Do the bands look like they go all the way round the body? In most coral snakes and some mimics, the bands are complete. If they don’t go all round the body, the snake is most likely a mimic. The variable coral snake is good example of when this might not work, in some individuals some of the bands may not reach all around the body.

Indigo Expeditions Wildlife Research & Endangered Species Conservation in Guatemala

The harmless coffee snake (Ninia sebae) shown here has a cream underside to the body, the red/yellow/black colouration does not continue all the way round the body.

Indigo Expeditions Wildlife Research & Endangered Species Conservation in Guatemala

Most of the bands on the variable coral snake Micrurus diastema continue all around the body, however if you look closely some do not reach the belly, highlighting the confusion in identifying some coral snakes.

Now here comes that BIG caveat!!

Clearly the topic is a complicated one, and to accurately identify a coral snake, or their mimics, you need to have some understanding of how to identify snakes from more than just colour and pattern.

The main thing to remember of course is that all snakes are harmless to humans if you leave them alone.

Thankfully, coral snakes are secretive and shy, so the easiest way to stay safe around them is to keep your distance, stay still, and let them go on their way.

There is ONE failsafe tip for staying safe with any snakes, not just coral snakes: Leave snakes alone, and they will invariably leave you alone!

 

Disclaimer:

This blog is intended solely to highlight the difficulties in correctly identifying coral snakes and their mimics, and to show how people can keep themselves safe when encountering them.

It is not intended to be used as an identification guide.

Indigo Expeditions will not be held responsible for any harm sustained to someone who handles snakes in an attempt to identify them.

Please ask a professional to help!

Rowland Griffin

Herpetologist, Indigo Expeditions

We’d love to hear about your encounters with coral snakes and their mimics. Leave a comment below or join the conversation on Social using #indigocorals or email us at info@explorewithindigo.com

CONSERVATION EXPEDITIONS

Published : 7th August 2020

Field Notes Archive

You may also like to read…

Indigo News