Coral Snake vs Milk Snake: 5 Key Differences Explained

Written by Hannah Ward
Published: October 21, 2021
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Think You Know Snakes?

Coral snakes and milk snakes are often confused for one another and it’s certainly an easy mistake to make given how similar they are.  After all, they’re both brightly coloured and have extremely similar markings.  So, is it possible to tell them apart?  The answer is yes, and there’s actually quite a few key differences between them.

For a start, one is deadly and one is not, and one is bigger than the other.  They eat different things and even kill their prey in different ways.  But that’s not all, so join us as we discover all of their differences and exactly how to tell which snake is the venomous one.

Comparing Milk Snake vs Coral Snake

Milk snakes and coral snakes both extremely brightly coloured and have smooth, shiny scales and are easily confused.  There are two groups of coral snakes – Old World and New World – and they are found in different locations.  There are 16 species of Old World coral snakes and more than 65 species of New World coral snakes.

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Milk snakes are a species of kingsnake and belong to the genus Lampropeltis which means “shiny shields” in Greek.  There are 24 subspecies of milk snake and for a long time the scarlet kingsnake was believed to be a milk snake.  Although there are some variations between the different species of coral snake and subspecies of milk snake, there are still some key differences that distinguish the two types.

Check out the chart below to learn a few of the main differences.

Milk SnakeCoral Snake
Size14 to 69 inchesTypically 18 to 20 inches, although New World can reach 36 inches
LocationNorth America and South AmericaAsia (Old World coral snakes)
The Americas (New World coral snakes)
HabitatVaries – forest, fields, rocky areasForest areas, burrowed underground or under leaves
In desert regions burrowed under sand or soil
ColorBanded coloration – often red, black, and yellow or varying shades. Darker colors outlined by blackBrightly colored – usually black, red, and yellow bands. Black bands outlined by yellow
VenomousNoYes
DietMice, rats, voles, lizards, bird, bird eggs, snakes, snake eggsFrogs, lizards, other snakes
Kill methodWrap themselves around their prey until they are deadParalyze and subdue prey with their venom
Lifespan15 to 20 years7 years

The 5 Key Differences Between Coral Snakes and Milk Snakes

Coral snakes are brightly colored and have distinctive bands

iStock.com/JasonOndreicka

Coral Snake vs Milk Snake: Color

Although they are similar colors, there is a difference in the appearance of milk snakes and coral snakes.  Both are brightly colored and are usually varying shades of red, yellow and black.  Even though they are not dangerous, milk snakes are brightly colored like the venomous coral snake as a warning sign to tell would be predators to stay away.

However, the important thing to look at on coral snakes and milk snakes is the colour of the bands.  Coral snakes usually have black bands outlined in yellow, while milk snakes usually have red bands outlined in black.  Coral snakes also have black heads to behind their eyes.  There is a common saying in areas where both coral snakes and milk snakes are found to help people remember the difference – “Red on yellow kills a fellow, red on black a friend of Jack.”

Coral Snake vs Milk Snake: Venom

One of the biggest – and most important – differences between milk snakes and coral snakes is their venom.  Milk snakes are not venomous and are not dangerous to humans.  They don’t have fangs and their teeth are only small, so even a bite isn’t harmful.

On the other hand, coral snakes are highly venomous and have the second strongest venom of any snake.  They have short, fixed fangs and their venom contains extremely powerful neurotoxins which affect the brains ability to control the muscles.  Symptoms include vomiting, paralysis, slurred speech, muscle twitching, and even death.

Coral Snake vs Milk Snake: Size

There is also a difference between the size of milk snakes and coral snakes.  Milk snakes are much longer than coral snakes and have an average length of between 14 and 69 inches.  Coral snakes are generally much smaller and most average between 18 and 20 inches.  However, New World coral snake are larger than Old World coral snakes and can reach up to 3 feet in length.

Coral Snake vs Milk Snake: Habitat

Milk snakes have a wide range across Canada, the US, and South America and have a varied habitat.  Although they prefer forest regions they are extremely adaptable and can also live in fields and on rocky slopes.  There are two groups of coral snakes – Old World (live in Asia) and New World (live in the Americas).  Coral snakes prefer forest or wooded areas where they like to burrow underground or hide underneath piles of leaves.  However, some coral snakes live in desert regions and are often burrow into the sand or soil.

Milk snakes have a similar appearance to coral snakes

iStock.com/amwu

Coral Snake vs Milk Snake: Diet

Milk snakes and coral snakes have slight differences in their diet, but one of their key differences is the method in which they kill their prey.  Coral snakes eat lizards, frogs, and other snakes.  They strike their prey with their fangs and inject their toxic venom to paralyze and subdue their prey before swallowing it whole.  Milk snakes have a more varied diet and eat mice, rats, voles, lizards, snakes, birds, bird eggs, and snake eggs.  They even sometimes eat coral snakes!  Milk snakes are constrictors and first kill their prey by wrapping their bodies tightly around them until their heart stops from a lack of blood flow.  Once their prey is dead they swallow them whole.

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Coral Snake vs Milk Snake

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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) 

Why do milk snakes shake their tails?

Milk snakes shake their tails when they see a predator to make them think that they are a rattlesnake and much more dangerous than they actually are.

How did milk snakes get their name?

Milk snakes got their name from an old tale that told of them sneaking into barns and drinking the milk from cows.  However, this is completely untrue because it is impossible for snakes to drink milk from cows.

Do coral snakes lay eggs?

Yes, unlike most other venomous snakes, coral snakes are oviparous and lay eggs rather than giving birth to live young.

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

No, coral snakes are from the Elapidae family which is a group of venomous snakes that are known for having fixed fangs rather than retractable fangs.  Milk snakes are from the family group Colubridae which is the largest family group of snakes.

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