Coral snakes are a large group of elapid snakes that can be divided into two distinct groups, the Old World coral snakes and New World coral snakes. There are 16 species of Old World coral snakes, 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 have origins in Asia, suggesting that the group originated in the Old World.[1][2] While new world species of both genera are venomous, their bites are seldom lethal; only two confirmed fatalities have been documented in the past 100 years from the genus Micrurus. Meanwhile, snakes of the genus Micruroides have never caused a medically significant bite.[3]

Coral snake
Eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius)
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Superfamily: Elapoidea
Family: Elapidae

North American coloration patterns edit

Experts now recognize that certain coloration patterns and common mnemonics—such as the phrase “Red touch yellow, kill a fellow; red touch black, friend of Jack,” which people sometimes use to distinguish between the venomous coral snake and the non-venomous milksnake—are not consistent enough to be trustworthy. While any snake exhibiting the coral snake's color and/or banding pattern in the southeastern United States will almost certainly, in fact, be a coral snake, there are coral snakes in other parts of the world which are colored differently.[4]

Coral snakes in the United States are most notable for their red, yellow/white, and black-colored banding. However, several nonvenomous species in the U.S. have similar (though not identical) bandings, including the two scarlet snake species in the genus Cemophora, and some of the kingsnakes (including the aforementioned milksnakes) in the genus Lampropeltis. However, in reference to the mnemonic phrase “red touching yellow, a deadly fellow,” some of these kingsnakes do not naturally display any red touching yellow, to begin with. Additionally, some ground snakes in the genus Sonora (of the southwestern U.S.) can have a color pattern that matches that of the sympatric Sonoran coral snake (Micruroides euryxanthus). No genuine coral snake in the U.S. exhibits red bands of color, in contact with bands of black, except in rare cases of an aberrant pattern. Thus, while on extremely rare occasions when a certain non-venomous snake might be mistaken for a coral snake, the mnemonic holds true. However, a red–yellow–black banded snake in the U.S. (whose red and black banding actually touch) is rarely a venomous coral snake.

Furthermore, the mnemonic is not consistently accurate for North American coral snake species found south of the U.S., either. Some species, like Mexico’s Oaxacan coral snake (Micrurus ephippifer) or Clark's coral snake (Micrurus clarki, of Costa Rica & Panama), do actually fit the mnemonic; others, like the Mexican saddled coral snake (Micrurus bernadi), the Honduran Roatan coral snake (Micrurus ruatanus), or the redtail coral snake (Micrurus mipartitus) of Panama, do not. Further still, some South American coral snakes will fit the mnemonic, while others do not. To complicate the issue more, the South American tricolored hognose snake (Xenodon pulcher) has repeated bands of red-black-white-black, imitating the coral snake as a defense mechanism, with the key visual difference being their upturned snout (used for burrowing). The hognoses are, actually, mildly rear-fanged venomous; although generally not considered serious to humans, anecdotal research has suggested the South American hognoses to possess slightly more potent venom than the North American hognoses. In the Old World, none of the coral snake species usually fit the mnemonic.

Most species of coral snake are small in size. North American species average around 90 cm (3 ft) in length, but specimens of up to 150 cm (5 ft) or slightly larger have been reported. Some coral snakes even live in the water but most of them do not. Aquatic species have flattened tails that act as fins, aiding in swimming.

Behavior edit

Coral snake showing typically reclusive behavior of hiding under rotting wood. This one was over 75 cm (30 in) long, but less than 25 mm (1 in) 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.[5][6] 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.[7][8] 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.[7][9] The venom takes time to reach full effect.[8]

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.[10]

Reproduction edit

M. fulvius reproduction is internal fertilization through the use of hemipenes. The breeding season occurs from spring to early summer and late summer to early fall.[11] Male combat is not typical in M. fulvius as males are smaller than females.[12] Micrurus fulvius are oviparous and typically lay eggs from May to July. During early spring females will undergo sudden vitellogenesis–oocyte and yolk formation–in preparation for breeding. Approximately 37 days post fertilization oviposition occurs and the average clutch size ranges from five to seven eggs. The incubation period of the M. fulvius eggs normally reaches 60 days.[11] Males also undergo sexual changes throughout the year, testicular recrudescence start in the fall and testicular regression occurs come spring.[13] However, males typically have mature sperm residing in the epididymis year round and are capable of storing sperm in the deferent duct over the winter till the females are receptive. A study investigating how climate influences the reproductive cycle discovered species found closer to the equator displayed more continuous cycles while those in colder regions had more seasonal cycles. With increasing temperatures as a result of climate change, continuous cycles have the possibility of becoming more prevalent.[12] Offspring reach maturation depending on sex, males mature at roughly 11 to 16 months while females reach maturity later at 26 months.[13]

Distribution (U.S.) edit

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.[14]

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.[15]

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, at elevations ranging from sea level to 1,800 m (5,800 ft); often found in rocky areas.[16]

Danger to humans edit

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. Even in areas that are densely populated bites are rare. According to the American National Institutes of Health, there are an average of 15–25 coral snake bites in the United States each year.[17] When confronted by humans, coral snakes will almost always attempt to flee, and bite only if restrained. In addition, coral snakes have short fangs (proteroglyph dentition) that cannot penetrate thick clothing although bites are possible through normal thin clothing. Any skin penetration, however, is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention.

Historically, the venom of the North American Micrurus and Micruroides species was believed to contain powerful neurotoxins which could paralyze the breathing muscles, requiring mechanical or artificial respiration. It was usually reported that there was only mild pain associated with a bite and that respiratory failure could occur within hours. However recent studies on the bites of at least the Texas Coralsnake (Micrurus tener) have shown that these bites rarely require antivenom, don't usually show any systemic respiratory problems and can be intensely painful.[18] Further studies are necessary to see if these clinical features are true of all Micrurus species. Body length in coral snakes appears to be positively associated with venom yield.[19]

Shortages of coral snake antivenom were previously reported,[20][21][22] but one source states that production has resumed[23] and, as of July 2021, Pfizer indicates that antivenom is available.[24]

Old World edit

Genus Calliophis edit

Species in this genus are:

Genus Hemibungarus edit

Species in this genus are:

Genus Sinomicrurus edit

Species in this genus are:

New World edit

Genus Micruroides edit

Genus Micrurus edit

Mimicry edit

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,[25][26] and that in the absence of coral snakes, species hypothesized to mimic them are indeed attacked more frequently.[27] Species that appear similar to coral snakes include:

References edit

  1. ^ Slowinski, J. B. & Keogh J. S. (April 2000). "Phylogenetic Relationships of Elapid Snakes Based on Cytochrome b mtDNA Sequences". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 15 (1): 157–164. doi:10.1006/mpev.1999.0725. PMID 10764543.
  2. ^ Slowinski, J. B.; Boundy, J. & Lawson, R. (June 2001). "The phylogenetic relationships of Asian coral snakes (Elapidae: Calliophis and Maticora) based on morphological and molecular characters". Herpetologica. 57 (2): 233–245. JSTOR 3893186.
  3. ^ Greene, Spencer C.; Folt, Jason; Wyatt, Kimberly; Brandehoff, Nicklaus P. (July 2021). "Epidemiology of fatal snakebites in the United States 1989-2018". The American Journal of Emergency Medicine. 45: 309–316. doi:10.1016/j.ajem.2020.08.083. PMID 33046301. S2CID 222320580.
  4. ^ "The Most Common Myths About Coral Snakes | The Venom Interviews". Archived from the original on 23 November 2018. Retrieved 7 October 2018.
  5. ^ Eastern Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius) Archived 31 August 2015 at the Wayback Machine, Savannah River Ecology Library.
  6. ^ "Coral Snakes: Rear fanged? Grooved fangs? Primitive?". Archived from the original on 1 February 2016. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  7. ^ a b "Eastern Coral Snake". Archived from the original on 9 January 2011. Retrieved 19 November 2008.
  8. ^ a b "Coral Snakes: Micrurus f. fulvius". Archived from the original on 29 September 2018. Retrieved 24 November 2009.
  9. ^ Coral Snakes: Colors, Bites, Farts & Facts Archived 24 June 2015 at the Wayback Machine, Live Science.
  10. ^ "Eastern Coral Snake". Animals national Geographic. 10 September 2010. Archived from the original on 9 August 2016. Retrieved 3 August 2015.
  11. ^ a b Chapman, Shannon. "Micrurus fulvius (Eastern Coral Snake, Harlequin Coralsnake)". Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved 5 April 2022.
  12. ^ a b Marques, Otavio A. V.; Pizzatto, Lígia; Santos, Selma M. Almeida (March 2013). "Reproductive Strategies of New World Coral Snakes, GenusMicrurus". Herpetologica. 69 (1): 58–66. doi:10.1655/herpetologica-d-12-00091. ISSN 0018-0831. S2CID 86499469.
  13. ^ a b Jackson, Dale R.; Franz, Richard (1981). "Ecology of the Eastern Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius) in Northern Peninsular Florida". Herpetologica. 37 (4): 213–228. ISSN 0018-0831. JSTOR 3891805.
  14. ^ "University of Georgia, Savannah River Ecology, Snakes of Georgia and South Carolina". Archived from the original on 12 January 2009. Retrieved 19 November 2008.
  15. ^ "Western Connecticut State University". Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 19 November 2008.
  16. ^ "Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum". Archived from the original on 25 January 2009. Retrieved 19 November 2008.
  17. ^ "Snake bites: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia". 13 January 2010. Archived from the original on 4 December 2010. Retrieved 16 November 2010.
  18. ^ Greene, S.; Ruha, A. M.; Campleman, S.; Brent, J.; Wax, P.; ToxIC Snakebite Study Group (2021). "Epidemiology, Clinical Features, and Management of Texas Coral Snake (Micrurus tener) Envenomations Reported to the North American Snakebite Registry". Journal of Medical Toxicology. 17 (1): 51–56. doi:10.1007/s13181-020-00806-3. PMC 7785759. PMID 32803694.
  19. ^ Peterson, Michael E. (1 November 2006). "Snake Bite: Coral Snakes". Clinical Techniques in Small Animal Practice. Practical Toxicology. 21 (4): 183–186. doi:10.1053/j.ctsap.2006.10.005. ISSN 1096-2867.
  20. ^ "Safety & Availability (Biologics) > Expiration Date Extension for North American Coral Snake Antivenin (Micrurus fulvius) (Equine Origin) Lot 4030026 Through October 31, 2014". Food and Drug Administration. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 19 March 2016.
  21. ^ Breen, David (12 October 2013). "Risk from coral-snake bites grows as antivenin dwindles". Orlando Sentinel. Archived from the original on 24 May 2014. Retrieved 25 May 2014.
  22. ^ "Antivenom Shortages – Cost of Antivenom Production Creates Shortages". Popular Mechanics. 10 May 2010. Archived from the original on 13 May 2010. Retrieved 16 November 2010.
  23. ^ Greene, Spencer (9 April 2021). Alcock, Joe (ed.). "What is the treatment for coral snake envenomation?". Medscape. Archived from the original on 1 March 2021. Retrieved 9 July 2021.
  24. ^ "Antivenin (Micrurus fulvius equine origin) North American Coral Snake Antivenin". Pfizer Hospital US. Archived from the original on 1 March 2021. Retrieved 9 July 2021.
  25. ^ Brodie III, Edmund D (1993). "Differential avoidance of coral snake banded patterns by free-ranging avian predators in Costa Rica". Evolution. 47 (1): 227–235. doi:10.2307/2410131. JSTOR 2410131. PMID 28568087.
  26. ^ Brodie III, Edmund D.; Moore, Allen J. (1995). "Experimental studies of coral snake mimicry: do snakes mimic millipedes?". Animal Behaviour. 49 (2): 534–6. doi:10.1006/anbe.1995.0072. S2CID 14576682.
  27. ^ Pfennig, David W.; Harcombe, William R.; Pfennig, Karin S. (2001). "Frequency-dependent Batesian mimicry". Nature. 410 (6826): 323. Bibcode:2001Natur.410..323P. doi:10.1038/35066628. PMID 11268195. S2CID 205015058.

Further reading edit

  • 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.
  • Tanaka G. D., Furtado Md. F. D., Portaro F. C. V., Sant'Anna O. A. & Tambourgi D. V. (2010). "Diversity of Micrurus Snake Species Related to Their Venom Toxic Effects and the Prospective of Antivenom Neutralization". PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 4(3): e622. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0000622
  • Universidad de Costa Rica (2009). El envenenamiento por mordedura de serpiente en Centroamérica ("Snakebite poisonings in Central America"). San José, Costa Rica: Instituto Clodomiro Picado, Facultad de Microbiología, Universidad de Costa Rica. (in Spanish)