Coral snakes

Coral snake
Coral snake (Micrurus sp.)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Family: Elapidae

See text.

The coral snakes are a large group of elapid snakes that can be subdivided into two distinct groups, Old World coral snakes and New World coral snakes. There are 11 species of Old World coral snake in one genus (Calliophis), and over 65 recognized species of New World coral snakes in three genera (Leptomicrurus, Micruroides, and Micrurus).

North American coloration patterns

Coral snakes are most notable for their red, yellow/white, and black colored banding. (However, several nonvenomous species have similar coloration, including the scarlet snake, genus Cemophora, some of the kingsnakes and milk snakes, genus Lampropeltis, and the shovelnose snakes, genus Chionactis.) In some regions, the order of the bands distinguishes between the non-venomous mimics and the venomous coral snakes, inspiring some mnemonics — "Red on yellow, poison fellow; red on black, safe from attack." or "Red on black, venom lack; Red on yellow, killer fellow". Instead of poetry, remembering that yellow touches both other colors can indicate a cause for caution. However, this reliably applies only to coral snakes native to North America: Micrurus fulvius (Eastern or common coral snake), Micrurus tener (Texas coral snake), and Micruroides euryxanthus (Arizona coral snake), found in the southern and western United States. Coral snakes found in other parts of the world can have distinctly different patterns, have red bands touching black bands, have only pink and blue banding, or have no banding at all.

Most species of coral snake are small in size. North American species average around 3 feet (91 cm) in length, but specimens of up to 5 feet (150 cm) or slightly larger have been reported. Aquatic species have flattened tails acting as a fin, aiding in swimming.


Coral snakes vary widely in their behavior, but most are very elusive, fossorial snakes which spend the vast majority of their time buried beneath the ground or in the leaf litter of a rainforest floor, coming to the surface only when it rains or during breeding season. Some species, like Micrurus surinamensis, are almost entirely aquatic and spend most of their lives in slow-moving bodies of water that have dense vegetation.

Like all elapid snakes, coral snakes possess a pair of small fangs to deliver their venom (some coral snakes are rear fanged). These fangs, which are enlarged and hollow, deliver their venom to their prey species, feeding mostly on smaller snakes, lizards, frogs, nestling birds, and rodents, etc. The venom takes time to take full effect.[1]

Coral snakes have a tendency to hold on to a victim when biting, unlike vipers, which have retractable fangs and tend to prefer to strike, letting go immediately. Coral snakes are not aggressive or prone to biting and account for less than one percent of the number of snake bites each year in the United States.


New World coral snakes exist in the southern range of many temperate U.S. states. Coral snakes are found in scattered localities in the southern coastal plain from North Carolina to Louisiana, including all of Florida. They can be found in pine and scrub oak sandhill habitats in parts of this range but sometimes inhabit hardwood areas and pine flatwoods that undergo seasonal flooding.[2]

There is controversy about the classification of the very similar Texas coral snake as a separate species. Its habitat, in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, is separated from the eastern habitat by the Mississippi River. The coral snake population is most dense in the southeast United States, but coral snakes have been spotted as far north as Kentucky.[3]

The Arizona coral snake, clearly a separate species and genus, is found in central and southern Arizona, extreme southwestern New Mexico and southward to Sinaloa in western Mexico. It occupies arid and semiarid regions in many different habitat types including thornscrub, desert-scrub, woodland, grassland and farmland. It is found in the plains and lower mountain slopes from sea level to 5800 feet (1768 m); often found in rocky areas.[4]

Danger to humans

New World coral snakes possess one of the most potent venoms of any North American snake. However, relatively few bites are recorded due to their reclusive nature and the fact they generally inhabit sparsely populated areas. According to the American National Institutes of Health, there are an average of 15–25 coral snake bites in the United States each year.[5]

When confronted by humans, coral snakes will almost always attempt to flee, and bite only as a last resort. In addition, coral snakes have short fangs (proteroglyph dentition) that cannot penetrate thick leather clothing. Any skin penetration however, is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention. Coral snakes have a powerful neurotoxin that paralyzes the breathing muscles; mechanical or artificial respiration, along with large doses of antivenom, are often required to save a victim's life. There is usually only mild pain associated with a bite, but respiratory failure can occur within hours.

The bite of a coral snake may soon be more dangerous, in part because bites are so uncommon. Production of coral snake antivenom in the United States has ceased because it is not profitable. According to Pfizer, the owner of the company that used to make Coralmyn, it would take over $5–$10 million to put toward researching a new synthetic antivenom. The cost was too large for the small number of cases presented each year. The current antivenom stock expired in 2010, after two consecutive expiration date extensions approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Foreign pharmaceutical manufacturers have produced other coral snake antivenoms, but the costs associated with licensing them in the United States have stalled availability (see above).[6] Instituto Bioclon is developing a coral snake antivenom.[7]

Old World

Genus Calliophis

Main article: Calliophis

Species in this genus are:

New World

Genus Leptomicrurus

  • Leptomicrurus collaris (Schlegel, 1837) – Guyana blackback coral snake (northern South America)
    • Leptomicrurus collaris collaris (Schlegel, 1837)
    • Leptomicrurus collaris breviventris (Roze & Bernal-Carlo, 1987)
  • Leptomicrurus narduccii (Jan, 1863) - Andean blackback coral snake
    • Leptomicrurus narduccii narduccii (Jan, 1863)
    • Leptomicrurus narduccii melanotus (W. Peters, 1881)

Genus Micruroides

  • Micruroides euryxanthus (Kennicott, 1860) – Arizona coral snake (lowland regions from Arizona to Sinaloa, Mexico)
    • Micruroides euryxanthus australis Zweifel & Norris, 1955
    • Micruroides euryxanthus euryxanthus (Kennicott, 1860)
    • Micruroides euryxanthus neglectus Roze, 1967

Genus Micrurus

  • Micrurus alleni K.P. Schmidt, 1936 – Allen's coral snake (eastern Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama)
    • Micrurus alleni alleni K.P. Schmidt, 1936
    • Micrurus alleni richardi Taylor, 1951
    • Micrurus alleni yatesi Taylor, 1954
  • Micrurus altirostris (Cope, 1860) (Brazil, Uruguay, and northeastern Argentina)
  • Micrurus ancoralis (Jan, 1872) - regal coral snake (southeastern Panama, western Colombia, and western Ecuador)
    • Micrurus ancoralis ancoralis (Jan, 1872)
    • Micrurus ancoralis jani K.P. Schmidt, 1936
  • Micrurus annellatus (W. Peters, 1871) – annellated coral snake (southeastern Ecuador, eastern Peru, Bolivia, and western Brazil)
    • Micrurus annellatus annellatus (W. Peters, 1871)
    • Micrurus annellatus balzanii (Boulenger, 1898)
    • Micrurus annellatus bolivianus Roze, 1967
  • Micrurus averyi K.P. Schmidt, 1939 - black-headed coral snake
  • Micrurus bernadi (Cope, 1887) (Mexico)
  • Micrurus bocourti (Jan, 1872) – Ecuadorian coral snake (western Ecuador to northern Colombia)
  • Micrurus bogerti Roze, 1967Bogert's coral snake (Oaxaca)
  • Micrurus browni K.P. Schmidt & H.M. Smith, 1943 – Brown's coral snake (Quintana Roo to Honduras)
    • Micrurus browni browni K.P. Schmidt & H.M. Smith, 1943
    • Micrurus browni importunus Roze, 1967
    • Micrurus browni taylori K.P. Schmidt & H.M. Smith, 1943
  • Micrurus camilae Renjifo & Lundberg, 2003 (Colombia)
  • Micrurus catamayensis Roze, 1989 – Catamayo coral snake (Catamayo Valley of Ecuador)
  • Micrurus clarki K.P. Schmidt, 1936 – Clark's coral snake (southeastern Costa Rica to western Colombia)
  • Micrurus corallinus (Merrem, 1820) - painted coral snake
  • Micrurus decoratus (Jan, 1858) - Brazilian coral snake
  • Micrurus diana Roze, 1983
  • Micrurus diastema (A.M.C. Duméril, Bibron & A.H.A. Duméril, 1854) - variable coral snake
    • Micrurus diastema aglaeope (Cope, 1859)
    • Micrurus diastema alienus (F. Werner, 1903)
    • Micrurus diastema affinis (Jan, 1858)
    • Micrurus diastema apiatus (Jan, 1858)
    • Micrurus diastema diastema (A.M.C. Duméril, Bibron & A.H.A. Duméril, 1854)
    • Micrurus diastema macdougalli Roze, 1967
    • Micrurus diastema sapperi (F. Werner, 1903)
  • Micrurus dissoleucus (Cope, 1860) - pygmy coral snake
    • Micrurus dissoleucus dissoleucus (Cope, 1860)
    • Micrurus dissoleucus dunni Barbour, 1923
    • Micrurus dissoleucus melanogenys (Cope, 1860)
    • Micrurus dissoleucus meridensis Roze, 1989
    • Micrurus dissoleucus nigrirostris K.P. Schmidt, 1955
  • Micrurus distans (Kennicott, 1860) - West Mexican coral snake
    • Micrurus distans distans (Kennicott, 1860)
    • Micrurus distans michoacanensis (Dugės, 1891)
    • Micrurus distans oliveri Roze, 1967
    • Micrurus distans zweifeli Roze, 1967
  • Micrurus dumerilii (Jan, 1858)
    • Micrurus dumerilii antioquiensis K.P. Schmidt, 1936
    • Micrurus dumerilii carinicaudus K.P. Schmidt, 1936
    • Micrurus dumerilii colombianus (Griffin, 1916)
    • Micrurus dumerilii dumerilii (Jan, 1858)
    • Micrurus dumerilii transandinus K.P. Schmidt, 1936
    • Micrurus dumerilii venezuelensis Roze, 1989
  • Micrurus elegans (Jan, 1858) - elegant coral snake
    • Micrurus elegans elegans (Jan, 1858)
    • Micrurus elegans veraepacis K.P. Schmidt, 1933
  • Micrurus ephippifer (Cope, 1886) - Oaxacan coral snake
    • Micrurus ephippifer ephippifer (Cope, 1886)
    • Micrurus ephippifer zapotecus Roze, 1989
  • Micrurus filiformis (Günther, 1859) - slender coral snake
    • Micrurus filiformis filiformis (Günther, 1859)
    • Micrurus filiformis subtilis Roze, 1967
  • Micrurus frontalis (A.M.C. Duméril, Bibron & A.H.A. Duméril, 1854) – southern coral snake (Brazil to northeastern Argentina)
    • Micrurus frontalis brasiliensis Roze, 1967
    • Micrurus frontalis frontalis (A.M.C. Duméril, Bibron & A.H.A. Duméril, 1854)
    • Micrurus frontalis mesopotamicus Barrio & Miranda 1967
  • Micrurus frontifasciatus (F. Werner, 1927) - Bolivian coral snake
  • Micrurus fulvius (Linnaeus, 1766) – eastern coral snake (U.S. coastal plains of North Carolina to Louisiana)
  • Micrurus hemprichii (Jan, 1858) - Hemprich's coral snake
    • Micrurus hemprichii hemprichii (Jan, 1858)
    • Micrurus hemprichii ortoni K.P. Schmidt, 1953
    • Micrurus hemprichii rondonianus Roze & da Silva, 1990
  • Micrurus hippocrepis (W. Peters, 1862) - Mayan coral snake
  • Micrurus ibiboboca (Merrem, 1820) - Caatinga coral snake
  • Micrurus isozonus (Cope, 1860) - Venezuela coral snake
  • Micrurus langsdorffi (Wagler, 1824) - Langsdorff's coral snake
    • Micrurus langsdorffi langsdorffi (Wagler, 1824)
    • Micrurus langsdorffi ornatissimus (Jan, 1858)
  • Micrurus laticollaris (W. Peters, 1870) - Balsan coral snake
    • Micrurus laticollaris laticollaris (W. Peters, 1870)
    • Micrurus laticollaris maculirostris Roze, 1967
  • Micrurus latifasciatus K.P. Schmidt, 1933 - broad-ringed coral snake
  • Micrurus lemniscatus (Linnaeus, 1758) - South American coral snake (most of low lying areas of South America)
    • Micrurus lemniscatus carvalhoi Roze, 1967
    • Micrurus lemniscatus diutius Burger, 1955
    • Micrurus lemniscatus frontifasciatus (F. Werner, 1927)
    • Micrurus lemniscatus helleri K.P. Schmidt & F.J.W. Schmidt, 1925
    • Micrurus lemniscatus lemniscatus (Linnaeus, 1758)
  • Micrurus limbatus Fraser, 1964 - Tuxtlan coral snake
    • Micrurus limbatus limbatus Fraser, 1964
    • Micrurus limbatus spilosomus Pérez-Higaredo & H.M. Smith, 1990
  • Micrurus margaritiferus Roze, 1967 - speckled coral snake
  • Micrurus medemi Roze, 1967
  • Micrurus mertensi K.P. Schmidt, 1936 - Merten's coral snake
  • Micrurus mipartitus (A.M.C. Duméril, Bibron & A.H.A. Duméril, 1854) - redtail coral snake
    • Micrurus mipartitus anomalus (Boulenger, 1896)
    • Micrurus mipartitus decussatus (A.M.C. Duméril, Bibron, & A.H.A. Duméril, 1854)
    • Micrurus mipartitus mipartitus (A.M.C. Duméril, Bibron & A.H.A. Duméril, 1854)
    • Micrurus mipartitus semipartitus (Jan, 1858)
  • Micrurus multifasciatus (Jan, 1858) - many-banded coral snake
    • Micrurus multifasciatus multifasciatus (Jan, 1858)
    • Micrurus multifasciatus hertwigi (F. Werner, 1897)
  • Micrurus multiscutatus Rendahl & Vestergren, 1940 - Cauca coral snake
  • Micrurus nebularis Roze, 1989 - cloud forest coral snake
  • Micrurus nigrocinctus (Girard, 1854)Central American coral snake (Yucatan and Chiapas to Colombia as well as western Caribbean islands)
    • Micrurus nigrocinctus babaspul Roze, 1967
    • Micrurus nigrocinctus coibensis K.P. Schmidt, 1936
    • Micrurus nigrocinctus divaricatus (Hallowell, 1855)
    • Micrurus nigrocinctus mosquitensis K.P. Schmidt, 1933
    • Micrurus nigrocinctus nigrocinctus (Girard, 1854)
    • Micrurus nigrocinctus ovandoensis K.P. Schmidt & H.M. Smith, 1943
    • Micrurus nigrocinctus wagneri Mertens, 1941
    • Micrurus nigrocinctus yatesi Dunn, 1942
    • Micrurus nigrocinctus zunilensis K.P. Schmidt, 1932
  • Micrurus pacaraimae Morato de Carvalho, 2002
  • Micrurus pachecogili Campbell, 2000
  • Micrurus paraensis da Cunha & Nascimento, 1973
  • Micrurus peruvianus K.P. Schmidt, 1936 - Peruvian coral snake
  • Micrurus petersi Roze, 1967 - Peters' coral snake
  • Micrurus proximans H.M. Smith & Chrapliwy, 1958 - Nayarit coral snake
  • Micrurus psyches (Daudin, 1803) - Carib coral snake
    • Micrurus psyches circinalis (A.M.C. Duméril, Bibron & A.H.A. Duméril, 1854)
    • Micrurus psyches donosoi Hoge, Cordeiro & Romano, 1976
    • Micrurus psyches psyches (Daudin, 1803)
  • Micrurus putumayensis Lancini, 1962 - Putumayo coral snake
  • Micrurus pyrrhocryptus (Cope, 1862)
  • Micrurus remotus Roze, 1987
  • Micrurus renjifoi Lamar, 2003
  • Micrurus ruatanus (Günther, 1895) - Roatán coral snake
  • Micrurus sangilensis Nicéforo-María, 1942 - Santander coral snake
  • Micrurus scutiventris (Cope, 1869)
  • Micrurus silviae Di-Bernardo et al., 2007
  • Micrurus spixii (Wagler, 1824) - Amazon coral snake
    • Micrurus spixiii martiusi K.P. Schmidt, 1953
    • Micrurus spixii obscurus (Jan, 1872)
    • Micrurus spixii princeps (Boulenger, 1905)
    • Micrurus spixii spixii (Wagler, 1824)
  • Micrurus spurelli (Boulenger, 1914)
  • Micrurus steindachneri (F. Werner, 1901) - Steindachner's coral snake
    • Micrurus steindachneri orcesi Roze, 1967
    • Micrurus steindachneri steindachneri (F. Werner, 1901)
  • Panamanian coral snake, Micrurus stewarti Barbour & Amaral, 1928
  • Micrurus stuarti Roze, 1967 - Stuart's coral snake
  • Aquatic coral snake, Micrurus surinamensis (Cuvier, 1817)
    • Micrurus surinamensis nattereri K.P. Schmidt, 1952
    • Micrurus surinamensis surinamensis (Cuvier, 1817)
  • Micrurus tamaulipensis Lavin-Murcio & Dixon, 2004 (Sierra Madre Oriental in Tamaulipas)
  • Micrurus tener (Baird & Girard, 1853)Texas coral snake (Texas and Louisiana south to Morelos and Guanajuato)
    • Micrurus tener fitzingeri (Jan, 1858)
    • Micrurus tener maculatus Roze, 1967
    • Micrurus tener microgalbineus Brown, & H.M. Smith, 1942
    • Micrurus tener tener (Baird & Girard, 1853)
  • Micrurus tricolor Hoge, 1956
  • Micrurus tschudii (Jan, 1858) - desert coral snake
    • Micrurus tschudii olssoni K.P. Schmidt & F.J.W. Schmidt, 1925
    • Micrurus tschudii tschudii (Jan, 1858)


New World coral snakes serve as models for their Batesian mimics, False coral snakes, snake species whose venom is less toxic, as well as for many nonvenomous snake species that bear superficial resemblances to them. The role of coral snakes as models for Batesian mimics is supported by research showing that coral snake color patterns deter predators from attacking snake-shaped prey,[8][9] and that in the absence of coral snakes, species hypothesized to mimic them are indeed attacked more frequently.[10] Species that appear similar to coral snakes include:


Further reading

  • Boulenger, G.A. 1894. Catalogue of the Snakes in the British Museum (Natural History). Volume III., Containing the Colubridæ (Opisthoglyphæ and Proteroglyphæ)... Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History). (Taylor and Francis, Printers.) London. xiv + 727 pp. + Plates I.- XXV. (Elaps, 28 species, pp. 411–433 + Plate XX.)
  • Roze, J.A. 1996. Coral Snakes of the Americas: Biology, Identification, and Venoms. Krieger. Malabar, Florida. 340 pp. ISBN 978-0894648472.
  • Tanaka G. D., Furtado Md. F. D., Portaro F. C. V., Sant'Anna O. A. & Tambourgi D. V. (2010). "Diversity of Micrurus Snake Species Related to Their Venom Toxic Effects and the Prospective of Antivenom Neutralization". PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 4(3): e622. 10.1371/journal.pntd.0000622

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