Emily Dickinson famously referred to a snake as being “a slender fellow in the grass.” The eastern coral snake is that, for sure. Very slim, and not a particularly long snake, either, they none-the-less have garnered an enormous reputation. Much of that reputation is exaggerated, or just plain wrong. In today’s post, I’d like to shed some light on this most beautiful of reptiles, in a balanced way that I hope will sort out some popular misconceptions, and give you a quick lesson in the easiest way to tell coral snakes apart from their completely harmless mimics.
First, the basics. The eastern coral snake, Micrurus fulvius, is an elapid, rather than a pit viper, like all other venomous snakes in the United States. That means, it is closely related to the cobras, mambas, and sea snakes, having neurotoxic venom, which attacks the nervous system. Pit vipers have hemotoxic venom, which attacks the blood. Coral snake bites cause an interruption in communication from the brain to the rest of the body, and can result in cardiac and respiratory failure, with suffocation often being the end result. So right from the get-go, coral snakes are set apart from all other snakes in North America.