Coral snake

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 16 species of Old World coral snake in three genera (Calliophis, Hemibungarus, and Sinomicrurus), and over 65 recognized species of New World coral snakes in two genera (Micruroides and Micrurus). Genetic studies have found that the most basal lineages are Asian, indicating that the group originated in the Old World.[1][2]

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

North American coloration patterns

Experts now recognize that coloration patterns and common mnemonics which people use to identify the deadly coral snake are occasionally inconsistent. While any North American snake exhibiting the coral snake's color banding pattern will almost certainly in fact be a coral snake (with one exception), there are coral snakes in other parts of the world which are colored differently.[3]

Coral snakes in North America are most notable for their red, yellow/white, and black colored banding. However, several nonvenomous species have similar (though not identical) coloration, including the scarlet snake, genus Cemophora; some of the kingsnakes, and the milk snakes, genus Lampropeltis, whose banding however does not include any red touching any yellow; also, there is a genus of shovelnose snake, genus Chionactis, whose color banding actually matches that of a genuine coral snake. No genuine coral snakes in North America, however, exhibit red bands of color in contact with bands of black except in rare cases of an aberrant pattern. So while on extremely rare occasions a certain non-venomous snake might be mistaken for a coral snake, the mnemonic holds true in that a red–yellow–black banded snake in North America whose red banding is in contact with its black banding is rarely a venomous coral snake.

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 snake showing typically reclusive behavior of hiding under rotting wood. This one was over 30 inches (76 cm) long, but less than an inch (2.5 cm) across.

Coral snakes vary widely in their behavior, but most are very elusive, fossorial (burrowing) snakes which spend most 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.

Coral snakes feed mostly on smaller snakes, lizards, frogs, nestling birds, small rodents, etc.

Like all elapid snakes, coral snakes possess a pair of small hollow fangs to deliver their venom. The fangs are positioned at the front of the mouth.[4][5] The fangs are fixed in position rather than retractable, and rather than being directly connected to the venom duct, they have a small groove through which the venom enters the base of the fangs.[6][7] Because the fangs are relatively small and inefficient for venom delivery, rather than biting quickly and letting go (like vipers), coral snakes tend to hold onto their prey and make chewing motions when biting.[6][8] The venom takes time to reach full effect.[7]

Coral snakes are not aggressive or prone to biting and account for less than one percent of the total number of snake bites each year in the United States. The life span of coral snakes in captivity is about seven years.[9]

Distribution (U.S.)

Eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius)

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 plains 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.[10]

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 coral snake's habitat by the Mississippi River. The coral snake population is most dense in the southeastern United States, but coral snakes have been documented as far north as Kentucky.[11]

The Arizona coral snake is classified as a separate species and genus and 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 5,800 feet (1,768 m); often found in rocky areas.[12]

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.[13] 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. The powerful neurotoxin in the venom paralyzes the breathing muscles, often requiring mechanical or artificial respiration and large doses of antivenom to save a victim's life. Though there is usually only mild pain associated with a bite, respiratory failure can occur within hours.

Antivenom shortage

As of 2012, the relative rarity of coral snake bites, combined with the high costs of producing and maintaining an antivenom supply, means that antivenom (also called "antivenin") production in the United States has ceased. According to Pfizer, the owner of the company that used to make the antivenom Coralmyn, it would take between $5 million and $10 million to research a new synthetic antivenom. The cost was too high in comparison to the small number of cases presented each year. The existing American coral snake antivenom stock technically expired in 2008, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has extended the expiration date every year through to at least 30 April 2017.[14][15] Foreign pharmaceutical manufacturers have produced other coral snake antivenoms, but the costs of licensing them in the United States have stalled availability (see above).[16] Instituto Bioclon is developing a coral snake antivenom.[17] In 2013, Pfizer was reportedly working on a new batch of antivenom but had not announced when it would become available.[15] As of 2016, the Venom Immunochemistry, Pharmacology and Emergency Response (VIPER) institute of the University of Arizona College of Medicine was enrolling participants in a clinical trial of INA2013, a "novel antivenom," according to the Florida Poison Information Center.[18][19]

As of July 2021, Pfizer indicates that antivenom is available[20] and one source states that production has resumed.[21]

Old World

Genus Calliophis

Species in this genus are:

  • Calliophis beddomei (M.A. Smith, 1943) – Beddome's coral snake (India)
  • Calliophis bibroni (Jan, 1858) – Bibron's coral snake (India)
  • Calliophis bivirgatus (F. Boie, 1827) – blue Malaysian coral snake (Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand)
  • Calliophis castoe (E.N. Smith, Ogale, Deepak & Giri, 2012) – Castoe's coral snake (India)
  • Calliophis gracilis (Gray, 1835) – spotted coral snake (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore)
  • Calliophis haematoetron (E.N. Smith, Manamendra-Arachchi & Somweera, 2008) – blood-bellied coral snake (Sri Lanka)
  • Calliophis intestinalis (Laurenti, 1768) – banded Malaysian coral snake (Indonesia, Malaysia)
  • Calliophis maculiceps (Günther, 1858) – speckled coral snake (Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos)
  • Calliophis melanurus (Shaw, 1802) – Indian coral snake (India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka)
  • Calliophis nigrescens (Günther, 1862) – black coral snake (India)
  • Calliophis salitan (Brown, Smart, Leviton & Smith, 2018) – Dinagat Island Banded Coralsnake (Philippines)

Nota bene: A binomial authority in parentheses indicates that the species was originally described in a different genus.

Genus Hemibungarus

Species in this genus are:

  • Hemibungarus calligaster (Wiegmann, 1835)barred coral snake (Philippines)
  • Hemibungarus gemianulis (Peters, 1872) – (Philippines)

Genus Sinomicrurus

Species in this genus are:

New World

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 albicinctus (Amaral, 1925) – White-banded Coral Snake
  • 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 baliocoryphus (Cope, 1860) – Mesopotamian coral snake
  • Micrurus bernadi (Cope, 1887) (Mexico)
  • Micrurus bocourti (Jan 1872) – Ecuadorian coral snake (western Ecuador to northern Colombia)
  • Micrurus bogerti (Roze, 1967) – Bogert's coral snake (Oaxaca)
  • Micrurus boicora (Bernarde, Turci, Abegg & Franco, 2018) – Boicora Coral Snake
  • Micrurus brasiliensis (Roze, 1967) – Brazilian short-tailed coral snake
  • 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 collaris (Schlegel, 1837) – Guyana blackback coral snake (northern South America)
    • Micrurus collaris collaris (Schlegel, 1837)
    • Micrurus collaris breviventris (Roze & Bernal-Carlo, 1987)
  • 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 diutius (Burgur, 1955) – Trinidad Ribbon Coral Snake
  • 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 frontalis (A.M.C. Duméril, Bibron & A.H.A. Duméril, 1854)
    • Micrurus frontalis mesopotamicus (Barrio & Miranda 19)
  • 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 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 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 meridensis (Roze, 1989) – Merida's coral snake
  • 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 mosquitensis (Schmidt, 1933) – Misquito coral snake
  • 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 narduccii (Jan, 1863) – Andean blackback coral snake
    • Micrurus narduccii narduccii (Jan 1863)
    • Micrurus narduccii melanotus (W. Peters, 1881)
  • Micrurus nattereri (Schmidt, 1952) – Natterer's 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 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 obscurus (Jan 1872) – Bolivian Coral Snake
  • Micrurus oligoanellatus (Ayerbe & Lopez, 2005) – Tambito's Coral Snake
  • Micrurus ornatissimus (Jan 1858) – Ornate Coral Snake
  • 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 potyguara (Pires, Da Silva, Feitosa, Prudente, Preira-Filho & Zaher, 2014) – Potyguara 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 serranus (Harvey, Aparicio & Gonzalez, 2003)
  • 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)
  • Micrurus stewarti (Barbour & Amaral, 1928) - Panamanian coral snake
  • Micrurus stuarti (Roze, 1967)Stuart's coral snake
  • Micrurus surinamensis (Cuvier, 1817) - aquatic coral snake
    • Micrurus surinamensis nattereri (K.P. Schmidt, 1952)
    • Micrurus surinamensis surinamensis (Cuvier, 1817)
  • 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 tamaulipensis (Lavin-Murcio & Dixon, 2004)
    • Micrurus tener tener (Baird & Girard, 1853)
  • Micrurus tricolor (Hoge, 1956)
  • Micrurus tikuna (Feitosa, Da Silva Jr, Pires, Zaher & Prudente, 2015)
  • 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,[22][23] and that in the absence of coral snakes, species hypothesized to mimic them are indeed attacked more frequently.[24] Species that appear similar to coral snakes include:

  • Cemophora coccinea
  • Chionactis palarostris
  • Erythrolamprus aesculapii
  • Erythrolamprus bizona
  • Erythrolamprus ocellatus, Tobago false coral snake
  • Lampropeltis elapsoides, scarlet kingsnake
  • Lampropeltis pyromelana
  • Lampropeltis triangulum, milk snake, including the following subspecies and others:
    • Lampropeltis triangulum amaura
    • Lampropeltis triangulum annulata
    • Lampropeltis triangulum campbelli
    • Lampropeltis triangulum gaigeae
    • Lampropeltis triangulum gentilis
    • Lampropeltis triangulum hondurensis
    • Lampropeltis triangulum multistrata
    • Lampropeltis triangulum syspila
  • Lampropeltis zonata
  • Lystrophis pulcher, tri-color hognose snake
  • Oxyrhopus petola
  • Oxyrhopus rhombifer, false coral snake
  • Pliocercus elapoides, variegated false coral snake
  • Rhinobothryum bovallii, coral mimic snake, false tree coral
  • Rhinocheilus lecontei tessellatus


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Further reading

  • Boulenger, G.A. 1896. 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.
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