How do I identify a coral snake?
Questions About Snakes

4 Snakes That Look Like a Coral Snake

America is home to a small number of dangerous snake breeds. Backyards play host to many types of snakes, and the vast majority of them are harmless. But there are venomous breeds of snake in the U.S. Unfortunately, the coral snake is often confused with harmless snakes.

The scarlet kingsnake, Sonoran shovel-nosed snake, red rat snake, and Florida scarlet snake look almost identical to coral snakes. The coral snake has round eyes and a round face. These are physical characteristics usually associated with non-venomous snakes.

It’s crucial that you can identify different types of snakes in order to keep you safe from danger. Of course, if you are unsure what kind of snake is confronting you, always slowly walk away. Never take any chances if you are unsure if a wild snake is venomous or poses a threat.

Snakes That Are Similar to the Coral Snake

Four snakes look like the coral snake. These are as follows:

  1. The scarlet kingsnake (Lampropeltis elapsoides)
  2. The Sonoran shovel-nosed snake (Chionactis palarostris)
  3. The red rat snake (Pantherophis guttatus)
  4. The Florida scarlet snake (Cemophora coccinea)

Each of them is nonvenomous to humans but could be mistaken for a coral snake. This can be a problem for the health of these reptiles, as many of them are often found in backyards. Some homeowners panic upon the sight of these types of snakes and attempt to kill them.

No other animal will imitate a coral snake’s behavior, largely because these snakes are so secretive. They live and hunt alone, and are even aggressive to each other. It’s rare that you will spot a coral snake in the wild as they prefer to hide away.

Why Would Nonvenomous Snake Mimic a Coral Snake?

This is a defense mechanism. All snakes are nervous by nature, and avoid predators at all costs. Snakes that do not have fangs or venom, meanwhile, feel particularly exposed. If they convince predators that they are dangerous, they have more chance of being left alone by predators.

How to Identify a Coral Snake

Coral snakes are most easily identified by their clear and distinct color patterns. A traditional coral snake has a black nose and tail (nonvenomous lookalikes have a red nose). The coral snake also has red and black scales, wrapped by yellow bands.

In addition to this, the coral snake will have very prominent fangs. Coral snakes cannot retract these, which means they will always be visible.

However, if you are close enough to acknowledge these, you could be in trouble. It’s best to keep a safe distance because an actual coral snake is venomous.

Which snake mimics the coral snake?

Coral Snake Rhyme

Because various nonvenomous snakes look so similar to a coral snake, enthusiasts have devised a rhyme.

“Red touching yellow will kill a fellow,

But red touching black is safe for Jack.”

As you will see, this rhyme is based upon the color scheme of these snakes. The scales on the back of a coral snake are red and black, with yellow bands. Hence, red touching yellow will kill a fellow.

Both the scarlet kingsnake and Florida scarlet snake, however, have black bands. This explains why red touching black is a friend of Jack.

Is This Rhyme Always Accurate?

If you encounter snakes with red, yellow and black markings in the wild, remember this rhyme. However, if you suspect that it’s not a coral snake that you encounter, do not engage.

Wild snakes will be frightened of you, and will not want to interact. Attempting to handle one could still result in you being bitten. Just because these breeds are nonvenomous, it won’t stop their teeth from hurting. And sometimes a snake doesn’t release its bite.

Some variants of the coral snake also have no markings. These could be almost entirely black (melanism.) Alternatively, you may encounter a white coral snake, which will be living with albinism. On top of this, the Sonaran shovel-nosed snake has almost identical markings to a coral snake.

The rule of thumb with wild snakes is to walk away.

Coral Snake vs. Scarlet Kingsnake

Lampropeltis elapsoides

It’s understandable that scarlet kingsnakes are mistaken for coral snakes. In terms of color schemes, these two reptiles are almost identical.

The fundamental differences in appearance are as follows:

  • The scarlet kingsnake has a blunt, red nose. The nose of the coral snake is considerably broader and black in color.
  • The tail of the scarlet kingsnake typically features all three colors in their tail. That means you’ll find red, black and yellow in their tail. A coral snake only has black and yellow in theirs.
  • The belly of a scarlet kingsnake will feature traces of white, alongside red and black.
  • The scales of the scarlet kingsnake are primarily deep red, hence the name. The snake will also feature yellow bands wrapped in black. The coral snake rhyme applies to this breed.

The scarlet kingsnake is mostly harmless and largely shy. They will often set up home in rotting trees and under the bark. Naturally, this means they prefer humid temperatures. They are particularly populous in the state of Georgia.

Coral Snake vs. Florida Scarlet Snake

Cemophora coccinea

The Florida scarlet snake is another coral snake lookalike. As the name suggests, these reptiles are particularly prominent in the sunshine state.

Geography is the biggest difference between this breed and the similarly named scarlet kingsnake. Florida scarlet snakes are also deep red in color, with yellow and black bands on their scales.

However, the color shades are a little more muted on this breed. In fact, some Florida scarlet snakes will have white bands as opposed to yellow.

The biggest difference between coral and Florida scarlet snakes is the belly. A coral snake features all three colors on their belly. That of a Florida scarlet snake, meanwhile, is pure white.

A Florida scarlet snake’s tail also has three colors; black, white and red. Coral snakes, as we know, have just two; black and yellow. This breed of snake also has a pointy red nose, rather than black.

Like coral snakes, these reptiles love to burrow and live underground. Unlike coral snakes, however, they are entirely harmless to humans. They usually dwell within forests and farmland.

Coral Snake vs. Sonoran Shovel-Nosed Snake

Sonoran Shovel-Nosed Snake

They swell exclusively in Arizona’s Sonaran desert.

Just to create confusion, this breed defies the coral snake rhyme. The Sonoran shovel-nosed snake has markings of black, yellow and red – with the latter two shades touching. Despite this, no venom is found in this snake’s mouth. They may produce mildly toxic saliva.

The easiest way to identify this snake is the distinctive large, flat snout. This will be yellow in color, rather than the black of the coral snake.

Coral Snake vs. Red Rat Snake

Wild red rat snake in Florida

The red rat snake is a variant of the corn snake. This means that this breed is entirely harmless to humans and very common. You’ll find them all over the country, in all weathers.

They are sometimes mistaken for coral snakes due to their coloring, though. Red rat snakes often have red and yellow scales, though they do not have typically have black bands.

These snakes are very timid around people, so they will rarely approach you.

How to Tell if a Snake is Venomous

Coral snakes are particularly dangerous because they defy traditional patterns for recognizing dangerous breeds. As a general rule you will be able to tell a venomous snake by these traits:

  • The Eyes. A venomous snake will usually have diamond or oblong-shaped eyes. Nonvenomous breeds tend to have round eyes.
  • The Head. A venomous snake will often have a triangular head, as opposed to round. Dangerous snakes such as cobras also have heat-seeking glands on the sides of their head. These make these snakes more effective hunters.
  • The Body. Nonvenomous stakes tend to be long and slender. A venomous snake, meanwhile, will be wider and heavier-set.

As we have mentioned, however, coral snakes do not abide by these rules. These snakes have round eyes and heads, and no heat sensors. This is not the only outlier to the rule, either. As always, if you can’t be sure, don’t engage. There is nothing to gain by interacting with a wild snake.

Where are Coral Snakes Found?

The typical habitat for a coral snake is forestry, marshlands or the desert. They are native to the southern states, though they can head north as far as Kentucky.

The Carolinas, Florida, New Mexico, and Texas are particularly likely to host coral snakes. You may not notice them, though. They will spend the vast majority of their time underground, or hiding in logs and leaves.

How Do I Keep Coral Snakes Out of My Yard?

If you’re worried about snakes making their way onto your property, apply some of these techniques.

  • Erect low, snake-proof fencing. Coral snakes stay low to the ground, so these should be enough to deter them.
  • Eradicate their food source. Coral snakes eat amphibians and birds. If you don’t have a birdhouse or pond, they won’t have natural prey.
  • Purchase a snake repellent. These are available from pet stores and supermarkets. Just be careful because it may be harmful to other pets.

Wild coral snakes in your backyard can be bad news. Even though these snakes are shy and secretive, they could still cause you harm.

How Dangerous are Coral Snakes?

Pound-for-pound, the coral snake is one of the most dangerous snakes in the world. This is because their venom is so potent. It is the most lethal snake that an average American may encounter.

Thankfully, there is a substantial caveat to this. Coral snakes are hugely secretive and private. It is unlikely that one of these reptiles will ever seek you out to attack.

Even if you do encounter a coral snake, they will react defensively first.  If this snake feels threatened, they curl into a ball. This confuses predators, leaving them wondering which is the snake’s head and which is the tail.

If you come across a coral snake, refer to the advice that we provide elsewhere.  You could recite the coral snake rhyme to check whether the reptile is poisonous. However, it’s best to walk away. If you take a few slow steps backward, the coral snake will not follow.

What Should I Do if a Coral Snake Bites Me?

If you are bitten by a coral snake, you will need urgent medical attention. If the bite wound is bleeding, bandage it immediately. Do so gently, though – avoid applying a tourniquet. Keep the wound below your heart to slow your heart rate down.

You will need to get to the closest emergency room. Thankfully, any hospital will have an antivenin. There have been no recorded fatalities through coral snake bites in around fifty years. As long as you act quickly, you’ll make a full recovery. You may spend time in a hospital, however.

It’s a blessing and a curse for a harmless snake to resemble coral snakes. On the one hand, it may ward off some predators. On the other, they may inspire panic among people.

All the same, it may benefit a nonvenomous snake to scare us as people. If we stay away from any wild snake, they will be happier for it. Remember the coral snake rhyme when out walking, but avoidance is always the best approach.