Sunday, December 29, 2013


There are lots of kinds of coral snakes, living in many countries.  Old World coral snakes include 11 species, and in the New World there are over 65 different species.  I can't really talk about so many snakes in one blog entry, so I'm just going to tell you about North American coral snakes.

As you probably know, coral snakes are POISONOUS.  They live in warmer places such as the southern U.S.  Their favorite habitats are pine and scrub oak sandhills, or maybe hardwood areas that get flooded every year.  Some types of coral snakes even spend almost all their time in slow-moving water where there are lots of plants.

Coral snakes don't have fangs in the front of their mouths, like rattlesnakes do.  They have small fangs in the back of their mouths.  This means have to sort of chew on their victims in order to get the venom flowing.  Coral snakes prey on smaller snakes, lizards, frogs, nestling birds, and rodents.  Baby snakes are about 7" long when they hatch from their eggs, and they are already poisonous.  Adults grow to be about 2' long.  In captivity, they can live to be 7 years old.  Nobody knows how long they live in the wild.

The venom of a coral snake is very toxic, and it can kill a person if the person does not get treated.  Luckily, since the snakes like to hang out under ground or in leaf debris or other such places, people don't meet up with them very often.  Coral snakes are not aggressive, and they will only bite if they are cornered or handled.

A coral snake bite isn't very painful, and it might not seem like a big deal at first.  But within a few hours, symptoms such as slurred speech, double vision, and muscle paralysis begin.  Eventually, the victim will die of respiratory or heart failure.

In 1967, an antivenin for coral snake bites was released by the Pfizer company.  But fewer than one percent of U.S. snakebites are from coral snakes, and only one human death was reported during the past 40 years.  So Pfizer stopped making the antivenin because it was too expensive to make something that almost nobody needed.  The last of the stored antivenin expired in 2010.  Luckily, people (and dogs) who get bitten by coral snakes can usually recover by being put on breathing machines in hospitals.

Coral snakes are red, yellow, and black in color, which makes them easy to identify.  Except that there are some other snakes with the same colors, and these snakes are not poisonous like coral snakes are.  These other snakes include the scarlet snake, some kingsnakes, and some milksnakes.  To tell these snakes apart from coral snakes people have made up little rhymes like these:

Red on yellow, venom fellow; 
red on black, safe from attack.

Red on black, venom lack; 
red on yellow, killer fellow.

Or you can just remember that if the yellow touches both the other colors, it's a coral snake.

My own philosophy is that if you see any snake of any size or color, you should just run the other way. That's much easier than trying to stand there and figure out if the snake is poisonous or not!

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