Coral Snake Rhyme: The One Rhyme to Avoid Venomous Snakes

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Updated: January 15, 2023
© Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock.com
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Coral snakes are venomous elapids known for their brightly colored patterns. All coral snakes have various combinations of yellow, black, white, and red rings. Most coral snakes are tri-colored although it is not uncommon to spot bi-colored specimens. They are also quite variable when it comes to length and measure anywhere from 11 to 47.5 inches.

Coral snakes are also known for their incredibly toxic venom. Their lethal neurotoxic venom is so infamous that it has a whole rhyme dedicated to it. Many say that the rhyme was created by boy scouts to help them identify the highly venomous reptiles. This article takes a look at the coral snake rhyme, its toxic venom, and several snakes that look like it.

Coral Snake Rhyme

Eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) are graceful, slender snakes whose length ranges between 2 and 3 feet when they’re mature.
The coral snake rhyme goes thus: Red touch black; safe for Jack, Red touches yellow; kills a fellow.

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Red touch black; safe for Jack,

Red touches yellow; kills a fellow.

There are various versions of the rhyme from community to community. Here are some other popular variations:

Red touch yellow; kill a fellow,

Red touch black; good for Jack.

Red on yellow; kill a fellow,

Red on black; venom lack.

Red and yellow can kill a fellow,

Red and black; friend of Jack.

Generally, all variations point to the same meaning: if a coral snake has its red and yellow rings touching, it is venomous. However, if its red and black rings are touching, it is nonvenomous.

It is important to note that this rhyme is only helpful for coral snakes that possess a normal pattern in the U.S. Even then, it doesn’t work everywhere. In Arizona, the Sonoran shovel-nosed snake has red and yellow bands that touch. Outside the U.S., it isn’t helpful.

Coral Snake Venom

The eastern coral snake has a black snout followed by a band of yellow, then black, then yellow or white, then red, then yellow then black all the way down to the tail.
Coral snakes are one of the most venomous species of snakes in North America.

©iStock.com/JasonOndreicka

Coral snakes are one of the most venomous species of snakes in North America. Their venom is made primarily of neurotoxins. Neurotoxins affect the nervous system, slowly but surely causing paralysis. Coral snakes have tiny proteroglyphous fangs that are so small they’re hard to see, and they have a hard time even puncturing human skin.

Coral snake bites are rare but when they occur, they are fast. It is impossible to tell how much venom has been transmitted into your system simply by taking a look at the bite. This is because their bites are often painless and easy to miss. Its symptoms, however, are severe and can even lead to death. It is common to experience nausea, dizziness, and swelling, leading up to paralysis.  

If the victim isn’t treated soon enough, the neurotoxins can attack the diaphragm, the muscle which helps humans breathe. Consequently, the victim will experience an inability to breathe which can lead to death. Luckily, their bites can be treated with antivenom designed specially to negate the snake bite’s effects and save the victim’s life.

However, coral snake bites are so rare that the antivenom is no longer produced. Coral snakes are not aggressive and always try to escape before biting. Also, since they need to chew to envenom, people can push away and end this process before it is complete, thus stopping the venom from getting deep into the body.

What To Do If You’re Bitten By A Coral Snake

If you’ve been bitten by a coral snake, contact emergency services immediately.

©iStock.com/JasonOndreicka

If you are bitten by a coral snake, treat the situation as an emergency by contacting emergency services as soon as possible. Stay calm and wait for help.

Snakes That Are Mistaken for Coral Snakes

Coral snakes are usually identified by their bright colors. However, since several other snake species have these same colors, they are often misidentified as coral snakes. Here are some coral snake look-alikes and how to identify them:

Scarlet Kingsnake (Lampropeltis elapsoides)

close up of scarlet kingsnake
Scarlet kingsnakes are subspecies of venomous snakes that look just like coral snakes.

©Radiant Reptilia/Shutterstock.com

Scarlet kingsnakes are also called scarlet milk snakes. They have black, red, and yellow (sometimes white) rings just like the coral snake. This makes them look a lot like coral snakes. The advantage of this is that they sometimes trick predators into thinking that they are venomous snakes. The flip side is that they are sometimes killed by humans as they are mistaken for coral snakes.

Scarlet kingsnakes aren’t amateurs at the imitation game. They also seem to mimic rattlesnakes by vibrating their tails to warn off predators. These snakes are more active at night and known for their excellent climbing skills, so they aren’t spotted by humans so often. Scarlet kingsnakes aren’t totally defenseless. They can release musk on their attackers, and sometimes they bite. However, their bites aren’t really painful. Scarlet kingsnakes have their black and red rings touching, so they are nonvenomous.

Sonoran Shovel-Nosed Snakes (Sonora palarostris)

Sonoran shovel-nosed snakes are found in various parts of the United States and Mexico. They have black, red, and yellow or white bands. Sonoran shovel-nosed snakes have their red and yellow bands touching but are not venomous. These snakes are very commonly mistaken for coral snakes.

The major difference between Sonoran shovel-nosed snakes and coral snakes is that Sonoran shovel-nosed snakes have black snouts and yellow bellies. Unlike coral snakes, their rings don’t go around their bodies, as they make way for their plain yellow bellies.

Red Corn Snakes (Pantherophis guttatus)

Red corn snakes are also known as red rat snakes. They have dorsal patterns with a gray or brown background. Red rat snakes do not have bands but have yellow, red, or white blotches with black borders. Their colors are similar to coral snakes and since their blotches extend down their bodies, it is easy to mistake them for coral snakes, especially from afar.

Unlike coral snakes, these snakes are nonvenomous and help keep several pest populations in check. Luckily, there are many differences between these two snake species. Red rat snakes are longer than coral snakes, for one. They measure 2– 6 feet, while the longest coral snake ever discovered was just under 4 feet and was considered exceptionally long for its species.

What To Do If You Spot A Coral Snake?

If you spot a coral snake, chances are it’ll already be slithering away. However, if it isn’t, respect its territory, give it space, and leave it alone. A coral snake will not bite unless it feels threatened. If you spot a Sonoran coral snake, it might make a popping sound from its cloacae if it feels threatened.

These sounds are variable, starting with high notes and then dropping rapidly. Some people call this flatulence, but a better description for them would be “cloacal pops”. Unlike some other snakes, Sonoran coral snakes do not produce these sounds with force. The western hook-nosed snake, on the other hand, farts so hard it goes flying!

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The Featured Image

The weight of the Eastern Coral Snake is between 2 and 5 pounds, depending on its size.
The weight of the Eastern Coral Snake is between 2 and 5 pounds, depending on its size.
© Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock.com

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