Color Variation in Coral Snakes – when the Rhyme is Wrong

“Red on black, friend of Jack, red on yellow will kill a fellow”

As I can personally attest, sometimes it’s more like black on yellow will kill a fellow. This well-known rhyme is one that most children and adults can readily spout off. It’s a simple way for people to remember the color differences between the similarly-patterned harmless scarlet kingsnake, and the deadly coral snake.

The rhyme is helpful in most, but not all, cases. Individual snakes can show a range of color variation in most species – no color is absolutely genetically fixed.

My personal experience with this happened on a guided nature hike I was leading once for a small group at Laura S. Walker State Park. While we were descending to a creek bottom, a small, slender black snake with yellow rings spaced along the length of its body passed across the trail right in front of us. It paused a few feet off the trail in the leaf litter.

Intrigued, I remarked to the group that in Georgia there are no native snake species that are all black with yellow rings down the body, so I naturally wanted to get a closer look. I thought it might be some exotic pet species that someone let loose in the woods, as this is what happens sometimes when people no longer want a pet but don’t know what to do with it.

I cautiously approached the snake and peered at it as close as I safely could. Only when I was about three feet away, peering closely, could I barely determine the darkest shade of maroon possible, in bands beside each yellow ring. The snake lay there, motionless, as I backed away from it in complete surprise.

It was a eastern coral snake, which to all observations was all black with yellow rings, instead of the standard black, red, and yellow rings. I excitedly showed the group what I had discovered from distant safety, and while some were alarmed, I was a little reluctant to leave it and go on.

Coral snakes are relatives of cobras and share a similar neurotoxic venom. This venom affects the nervous system of a bitten animal, causing paralysis and eventual death. According to Medscape, coral snake envenomations account for fewer than 1% of venomous snake bites in the U.S. The odds that someone will get bitten by one are very low. This is partially due to the fact that coral snakes are generally nonaggressive and do not possess the long, syringelike fangs that pit vipers like rattlesnakes bear. Protective footwear like hiking boots are usually sufficient to ward off a bite. In addition, most people that are bitten are usually handling the snake when it happens.

While many snakes, including venomous species, can show a range of colors, the number one thing to remember when encountering snakes is to err on the side of caution and don’t try to disturb them. Don’t pick up a snake, especially if you’re not absolutely 100% certain about the species. Because I was not clear on what that particular snake could be, I did not dare try to catch it – for all I knew it could have been a venomous exotic. Safety and caution should always be a priority when dealing with snakes – of any species.

Medscape –

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