Coral Snake vs Kingsnake: 5 Key Differences Explained

Written by Hannah Ward
Updated: January 15, 2023
© Matt Jeppson/Shutterstock.com
Share this post on:
Think You Know Snakes?
Continue Reading To See This Amazing Video

Coral snakes and scarlet kingsnakes are often confused for one another and it’s certainly an easy mistake to make given how strikingly similar they are. After all, they’re both brightly colored and have similar markings, and even live in some of the same habitats. So, considering how alike they are is it actually possible to tell them apart? The answer is yes, and there are actually quite a few key differences between them.

For a start, one is deadly and one is relatively harmless, and one is much bigger than the other. They even kill their prey in different ways, and one is actually a predator of the other. But that’s not all there is to learn about these fascinating snakes, so join us as we discover all of their differences and exactly how to tell which is the venomous one.

Kingsnakes and coral snakes have key differences. Kingsnakes even hunt coral snakes!

©A-Z-Animals.com

61,800 People Couldn't Ace This Quiz

Think You Can?

Comparing Scarlet King Snake vs Coral Snake

Of all the king snake species, scarlet kingsnakes are the most likely victims of mistaken identity. Scarlet king snakes and coral snakes are both brightly colored and have a striking appearance. However, their distinctive banded appearance means that they are easily mistaken for one another. Scarlet kingsnakes belong to the genus Lampropeltis which means “shiny shields” in Greek. There are currently around 9 recognized species of kingsnake and around 45 subspecies.

There are two groups of coral snakes — Old World and New World — and they are found in different areas. Old World coral snakes live in Asia and New World coral snakes live in the Americas. There are 16 species of Old World coral snakes and more than 65 species of New World coral snakes.

In this article, we’re only including the three U.S. coral snake species (Eastern, Texas, and Arizona), and the scarlet king snake because they are most often confused for one another. Additionally, once you leave the U.S., coral snakes become far more unique in their colors and patterns.

Although there are some variations between the different species of U.S. coral snakes and scarlet king snakes, there are still some key differences that distinguish the two types. Check out the chart below to learn a few of the main differences.

Scarlet KingsnakeU.S. Coral Snake
SizeTypically 16-20 inches, they’re the smallest snake in Lampropeltis.Typically 18 to 20 inches, although a Texas coral snakes may reach 48 inches.
LocationNorth America, throughout the US and into Mexico.Southern half of the U.S. and northern Mexico, from Arizona to the east coast.
HabitatVaries, but includes forest, grassland, shrubland, and desertsForest areas, burrowed underground or under leaves. Coral snakes in desert regions burrow into sand or soil.
ColorBanded coloration — often red, black, and pale yellow. Red and black bands touch each other.Brightly colored — U.S. snakes usually have black, red, and yellow bands that wrap around the body. Red and yellow bands touch each other.
VenomousNoYes
DietLizards, snakes, and larger specimens may also eat small mammals.Frogs, lizards, other snakes
Kill MethodConstrictionParalyze and subdue prey with their venom
PredatorsLarge birds of prey, such as hawksBirds of prey such as hawks, other snakes, including king snakes
Lifespan20 to 30 years7 years

The 5 Key Differences Between Coral Snakes and King Snakes

Kingsnakes and coral snakes have a number of key differences. First, kingsnakes are larger and are not venomous while coral snakes use venom for hunting their prey. Kingsnakes will even hunt coral snakes. In addition, the red and black bands of king snakes touch each other while most coral snakes have red and yellow bands that touch one another. Let’s dive into the key differences between these two snakes!

1. Coral Snake vs Kingsnake: Color

Coral snakes have distinctive bands where the red and yellow are next to each other

©iStock.com/JasonOndreicka

Although scarlet kingsnakes and coral snakes often have a similar appearance, there are still some significant differences between them. Scarlet kingsnakes have smooth, shiny scales and are often red, black, and pale yellow. The red and black bands are usually touching.

Texas and eastern Coral snakes are brightly colored and usually have black, red and yellow bands. Arizona coral snakes’ yellow can be extremely pale and almost white. In normally-patterned individuals, the red and yellow bands touch each other. Coral snakes also have short, blunt snouts with black heads to behind their eyes.

There is a common saying in areas where both coral snakes and scarlet king snakes are found to help people remember the difference – “Red on yellow kills a fellow, red on black a friend of Jack.” However, this rhyme only helps confirm a typical U.S. coral snake. There are many examples of coral snakes with aberrant patterns. In addition, Arizona has a little nonvenomous snake called the Sonoran shovel-nosed snake (Chionactis palarostris) which has red and yellow bands that touch.

Coral Snake vs Scarlet Kingsnake: Venom

One of the biggest, and most important, differences between kingsnakes and coral snakes is their venom. Coral snakes have short, permanently erect fangs and their venom contains extremely powerful neurotoxins which affect the brains’ ability to control muscles. Symptoms include vomiting, paralysis, slurred speech, muscle twitching, and even death.

On the other hand, kingsnakes don’t have fangs and are not venomous so are not dangerous to humans. Their teeth are conical-shaped but are only small, so even a bite isn’t harmful.

Coral Snake vs Scarlet Kingsnake: Size

There is little difference between the size of scarlet king snakes and most U.S. coral snakes. Scarlet kingsnakes average 14-20 inches long, while eastern and Arizona coral snakes average between 16 and 20 inches. However, Texas coral snakes are noticeably bigger and can reach 48 inches in some instances.

Coral Snake vs Kingsnake: Habitat

Most coral snakes prefer forest or wooded areas where they like to burrow underground or hide underneath piles of leaves. The Arizona coral snake hides in rock outcrops and is more of a desert dweller than the eastern and Texas coral snakes.

Scarlet king snakes are nocturnal and fossorial, they’re likely to be found in the same areas as eastern and Texas coral snakes.

Coral Snake vs King Snake: Diet

scarlet kingsnake slithering
Kingsnakes are constrictors and kill their prey by suffocation

©iStock.com/JasonOndreicka

Scarlet kingsnakes and coral snakes have slight differences in their diet, but one of their key differences is the method by which they kill their prey. Coral snakes eat lizards, frogs, and other snakes. As they are venomous snakes they strike their prey and inject toxic venom with their fangs. Their venom subdues their prey so they can swallow it without a struggle.

Scarlet kingsnakes typically eat lizards and small snakes, but larger individuals may also eat small mammals. The “king” part of their name refers to them being a predator that preys on other snakes. Scarlet kingsnake are constrictors and first kill their prey by wrapping their bodies tightly around them until their heart stops due to the stress caused by constriction. Despite having teeth, kingsnakes actually don’t use them to chew their food with. Instead, they swallow their prey whole once they’ve killed it, and use their small teeth to guide it down their throat.

Next Up

FAQ’s (Frequently Asked Questions)

Are coral snakes and king snakes from the same family group?

No, king snakes are from the family group Colubridae which is the largest snake family.  Members of the Colubridae family are found on every continent in the world except Antarctica. Coral snakes are from the family group Elapidae which are a family of venomous snakes. Elapidae snakes are characterized by their permanently erect fangs which they use to deploy their deadly venom, rather than having retractable fangs.

Do coral snakes lay eggs?

Yes, coral snakes are oviparous and lay eggs rather than giving birth to live young.  King snakes are also oviparous.

Discover the "Monster" Snake 5X Bigger than an Anaconda

Every day A-Z Animals sends out some of the most incredible facts in the world from our free newsletter. Want to discover the 10 most beautiful snakes in the world, a "snake island" where you're never more than 3 feet from danger, or a "monster" snake 5X larger than an anaconda? Then sign up right now and you'll start receiving our daily newsletter absolutely free.


Up Next:

More from A-Z Animals


The Featured Image

kingsnake curled up in grass
Kingsnakes are commonly mistaken for coral snakes.
© Matt Jeppson/Shutterstock.com

Share this post on:
About the Author

I have been writing professionally for several years with a focus on animals and wildlife. I love spending time in the outdoors and when not writing I can be found on the farm surrounded by horses, dogs, sheep, and pigs.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are coral snakes and king snakes from the same family group?

No, king snakes are from the family group Colubridae which is the largest snake family.  Members of the Colubridae family are found on every continent in the world except Antarctica.  Coral snakes are from the family group Elapidae which are a family of venomous snakes.  Elapidae snakes are characterized by their permanently erect fangs which they use to deploy their deadly venom, rather than having retractable fangs.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.