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Coral snake – how to identify, avoid their habitat, and treatment for their bite.

Eastern Coral Snake

Coral snake
Micrurus fulvius

Description: Texas Coral SnakeThe Coral Snake is colorfully marked with rings that are bright blacks, reds, and yellows in color.  Some of the colored bands, particularly the red bands, may be speckled.  Other non-poisonous species have similar colors and markings including the Scarlet Snake and the Milk Snake.  In North America, to identify the species, remember that when red touches yellow it is a coral snake.  You can remember this with the poem “when red touches yellow you’re a dead fellow”.  In other parts of the world the colors and banding order differ (including species with red bands bordered by black bands).

Coral Snakes in areas outside North America have different colored bandsMost Coral Snakes are small in size averaging around 2-3 feet in length and 1 inch in diameter.  It has short fangs around 1/8 inch long that are fixed in an erect position and a small head relative to its body.

Coral Snakes have a tendency to hold onto their victim while biting (unlike vipers which have retractable fangs and bite and release quickly).  It often chews to release its venom into a wound.  Its venom is very powerful (Coral Snakes are a member of the Elapidae family which includes the Cobra, Mamba, and Sea Snake). The venom is neurotoxic, causing respiratory paralysis in the victim, who succumbs to suffocation.

Characteristics: Coral SnakeCoral Snakes are secretive in its habits and elusive and therefore seldom seen.   When confronted by humans they almost always attempt to flee, or bury its head in its coils, and only bite as a last round of defense.  Many can make a clicking or popping sound as a warning.  They often remain hidden under logs or burrowed underground in cracks, moist soil, or crevices.  They are nocturnal creatures and only active during the nighttime hours.  Many only come out after it rains.

Symptoms: Coral Snakes have a powerful neurotoxin that paralyzes the breathing muscles.  There is usually only mild pain and little swelling following a bite but symptoms can begin within hours after the bite.  As many as 60% of Coral Snake bites are “dry” but do not assume that because there is no pain, the bite did not result in poisoning.  Symptoms can include slurred speech, numbness, dizziness, double vision, drooping eyelids, muscular paralysis, loss of muscle control, difficulty swallowing, weak pulse, shock, respiratory problems, and cardiac arrest.

Treatment: Close-up of Coral Snake bandsCoral Snake antivenin ceased production because it was not profitable.  Since the snake is elusive, there are very few bites occurring each year.  Clean the infected area and follow the directions for treating snake bites.

Habitat: Found in a variety of habitats including wooded areas, swamps, palmetto and scrub areas. Coral snakes often venture into residential locations.

Length: Average 60 centimeters (24 inches), maximum 115 centimeters (45 inches).

Distribution: Southeast United States and west to Texas. Another genus of coral snake is found in Arizona. Coral snakes are also found throughout Central and most of South America.

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