In Praise of Coral Snakes



(This article was previously published in the Spring, 2013 issue of Georgia Backroads Magazine.)

This past September, I found an Eastern Coral Snake. I located the little snake, all of one foot long (and almost certainly a yearling), under a decomposing oak log on a vast sand ridge above the Altamaha River. The experience left me awash in memories, for I have always been a Coral fanatic. Coral Snakes, as you may know, are members of the Family Elapidae and possess some of the most potent venoms in the snake world; their old world cousins include cobras, craits, and Death Adders.

In 1988, when I was still a youngin’ and a recent college grad, a night-time “road-cruise” of a remote primitive road on the west side of the Okefenokee Swamp produced my first-ever Micrurus fulvius (Eastern Coral Snake). A native of elapid-less Illinois, prior to my translocation to south Georgia I had spent years poring over the Peterson Field Guide and other regional treatments to the North American herpetofauna with an almost catatonic intensity. So, when I spotted a section of candy cane marked with a repetitive series of red–yellow–black rings blocking my path and it moved, I knew instantly what I had. Leaving the still rolling vehicle, a brief melee ensued, my truck nearly rolling into a ditch. Later that evening yet another Coral, this a gorgeous 30-inch female found slinking across the road near Hortense, Georgia.

I suspect that most herp-passionate folks can recall what they were wearing, the date, time, weather, and maybe even how many games separated the Atlanta Braves’ closest rivals from first place, when they encountered their first Coral Snake. From a payphone at a moth-splotched mini-mart, I called first my girlfriend and then my parents, simply to announce the breaking news, “I have found my first ever Coral Snakes… even more beautiful than anticipated… I have found two so far tonight, and I’ll be going back out and road-cruising some more…” My Mother, who at first tolerated my passion for herps but later participated, even bringing me a county-record Milk Snake—sadly, found DOR (dead-on-road) on her exercise-walk and protected by a neatly folded napkin placed softly in a pocket of her blouse—interrupted, “I’m happy for you kiddo, but it’s pretty late here…Let me put your Father on—maybe he’s up for one of your reptile stories at midnight.”

Erroneously, Corals are considered by many to be diminutive, harmless bracelets of scales. Of the nearly 60 species of Coral Snakes (the group is limited to the New World, with species diversity highest in Central and South America), there are many that will bite savagely if restrained or similarly harassed, and a handful that reach five feet (1.5 meters) in length and the girth of a man’s finger.

In Georgia, our Eastern Coral Snakes are typically quick to flee with hopes of escape into nearby leaf litter. However, legendary herpetologist and Florida ecologist Archie Carr (1909–1987) wrote of one that turned and struck directly at his foot. I’ve seen a number of Eastern Corals that ranged from 30-40 inches long (the record slightly exceeds 4 feet), and looked on as a colleague gently pinned a good-sized adult with his boot only to have it immediately whip around and apply repetitive chew-bites, ankle-high, with the authority of a sewing-machine. Generally, though, these snakes are retiring and inoffensive, and will do everything under their power to avoid us.

Every bit as strange as they are beautiful, the diet of Corals is typically dominated by elongate vertebrate prey. Many species are strongly ophiophagous (snake-eating), and cannibalism occurs on occasion. Snake prey are invariably swallowed headfirst—they slide down smoother that way. The fairly small fangs of Coral Snakes are fixed in position on the front part of the upper jaw, unlike our vipers (Copperhead, Cottonmouth, rattlesnakes), the large fangs of which retract into grooves on the roof of the mouth when not in use.

Our Georgia Micrurus like Skinks and small snakes—like Ringnecks and Crowned Snakes, but any snake will do. The Western Coral Snake (Micruroides euryxanthus), an inhabitant of Sonoran desert regions of Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico, has a profound fetish for Blind Snakes. Some tropical species may consume odd animals like caecilians, amphisbaenids, or, in the case of the strapping (to 5 feet in length) and aquatic Micrurus surinamensis of the Amazon Basin, elongate fishes like eels.

Generally, Coral Snakes are either nocturnal, crepuscular, or, when diurnal, active early in the morning or late in the afternoon. It was quite a surprise then, when on an expedition to Costa Rica my wife and I found a Micrurus alleni swimming across the Tortuguero River at midday. In a marvelous sentence in his book Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature, acclaimed herpetologist Harry Greene of Cornell University describes Coral Snakes as “confusing, cylindrical, protean, harlequin, lacquer-like, nervous, ornamented, shiny, supple, surreal, treacherous and unpredictable.” I might add “spasmodic”, “autonomous”, and “subterranean”. Harry’s a Coral Snake expert, and his book and numerous scientific papers (especially on mimicry) germane to this group of snakes make for fascinating reading.

As a testament to just how secretive and sneaky these little tri-colored serpents are, my recently discovered Coral Snake (found under the turkey oak log) was only my third Coral observation in 15 years and many hundreds of walks at this particular site—Big Hammock Natural Area, Tattnall County, Georgia. Big Hammock is a remarkably austere, oak-clad dune complete with evergreen hammocks that have an almost tropical luxuriance. It’s a very special place to me. Between thunderclaps, I proposed to my wife here, under oaks draped with Spanish moss and close to the handsome blossoms of flowering Elliottia racemosa (Georgia plume), a sandhill endemic. I can’t remember if I kneeled when I proposed, but it’s highly likely that at some point I shuffled some leaf litter in hopes of flushing a Micrurus.

The other Coral Snakes I have found at Big Hammock included a snake basking at the mouth of a longleaf pine stump, and another under a piece of “fat-lighter” (i.e., a remnant section of longleaf pine trunk dense with deposits of resin) deeply embedded in the sand. The same day I found the latter, I looked up to see a gorgeous seven foot male Indigo Snake resting motionless on the ground near a Gopher Tortoise burrow. On other sojourns to this natural area I have spotted the chocolate-blotches of a plump southern hognose, and the newly shed skins of an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake litter strewn about the black widow web-laced openings of a massive pine stump. In actuality, I see very few snakes here. But those mentioned above will sure keep me coming back.

In Georgia, Eastern Coral Snakes are restricted to the low country of the Coastal Plain where they prefer pine–palmetto habitats and sandy landscapes, especially longleaf pine sandhill environments. They also occur coastally, and on some barrier islands, in maritime hammocks. The species is now uncommon and locally distributed in Georgia and is tracked as a “Species of Special Concern” by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Two species of non-venomous snakes native to Georgia, the Scarlet Snake and the Scarlet Kingsnake, possess similar bright coloration and thus are sometimes mistaken for Coral Snakes. The oft-repeated ditty, “red touch yellow, harm a fellow; red touch black, friend of Jack” comes in handy. The red and yellow rings of the Coral Snake are in contact, while in both the Scarlet Snake and Scarlet Kingsnake red rings or blotches are in touch with black pigment. As engaging as any of Georgia’s other 40 native species of snakes, the wonderfully-patterned, singularly venomous (yet remarkably secretive) Eastern Coral Snake is a valuable component of our natural heritage. Should you spot one of these harlequin beauties slithering through the leaf mold, count yourself lucky.