Coral Snake vs Milk Snake: 5 Key Differences Explained

Coral Snake vs Milk Snake

Written by Hannah Ward

Updated: March 14, 2023

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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.

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
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

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.” However, the rhyme only works in North America — and even then isn’t 100% reliable.

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

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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About the Author

Hannah is a writer at A-Z animals where her primary focus is on reptiles, marine life, mammals, and geography. Hannah has been writing and researching animals for four years alongside running her family farm. A resident of the UK, Hannah loves riding horses and creating short stories.

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