Arizona is a diverse state with some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. Living across much of that scenery, however, are scaley neighbors. Snakes live across the entirety of Arizona, with a total of 52 species currently documented. Of those 52 species, there are 14 venomous species among them. Today, we will take a look at one of the most elusive, beautiful, and dangerous snakes you can find in the state: the coral snake. Let’s explore coral snakes in Arizona and learn what they look like, plus see some snakes that want you to think they are coral snakes!
What is a Coral Snake?
Coral snakes are a group of snakes that live across the New and Old World, all belonging to the Elapidae family. All coral snakes are related to cobras, although you wouldn’t be able to tell just from looking at them. In the New World (North, Central, and South America), there are 65 recognized species of coral snakes. New World coral snakes belong to the subfamily Micrurinae and share some similar traits.
Although there are 65 species of coral snake, there are only two fully distinct species that are recognized in the United States. The other species can be found across Central and South America. Running into a coral snake is a rare occurrence as they are reclusive snakes that spend most of their time underground. Even still, most people thinking they have encountered a coral snake have stumbled across one of the many mimic snakes that like to pretend they are coral snakes.
There is one primary species of coral snake in Arizona, with a few subspecies that inhabit certain ranges within the state. Let’s learn how to identify coral snakes in Arizona!
Coral Snakes in Arizona
Western Coral Snake (Micruroides euryxanthus)
There are two species of coral snake in the United States, the eastern and western coral snake. Between these two species, there are many subspecies and colloquial names. The process of identifying them is mostly regional. Many of these snakes have listed subspecies that are different only by name and region. These subspecies often don’t have varying traits and are known as “nominal” subspecies, meaning they are different only by name.
The western coral snake goes by many names, although the two most common are the Arizona coral snake and the Sonoran coral snake.
Identification: The Arizona coral snake is a vibrant and colorful snake that can be identified by its distinct strip pattern. Arizona coral snakes have a banded pattern that goes black, yellow (sometimes white), red. One of the best ways to distinguish between a western and eastern coral is the thickness of the yellow or white stripe. Eastern corals have a very thin stripe, while western corals have a thicker stripe. The important thing to remember about North American coral snakes is that the black band never touches the red band. Additionally, coral snakes have inky black heads with black eyes.
Western coral snakes are smaller than their eastern cousins, rarely growing longer than 22 inches with the thickness of a large pencil.
Distribution: As the moniker “Sonoran coral snake” would have you believe, these snakes can be found across the Sonoran Desert regions of Arizona, Mexico, and New Mexico. They prefer hot, arid environments with elevations of less than 5,800 feet.
The Three Subspecies of Western Coral Snakes
There are three recognized subspecies of M. euryxanthus. There is little information on these subspecies aside from their slightly varying distribution.
- Micruroides euryxanthus australis – Mexico (Southwest Chihuahua, South Sonora, North Sinaloa)
- Micruroides euryxanthus euryxanthus (Arizona, New Mexico, Chihuahua, Sonora)
- Micruroides euryxanthus neglectus (north of Mazatlan, Sinaloa)
Commonly Misidentified as Coral Snakes
There are many snakes that mimic the coral snake as a defense mechanism. Here are three that you could potentially come across in Arizona, plus how to differentiate them.
Arizona Mountain Kingsnake (Lampropeltis pyromelana)
The Arizona mountain kingsnake belongs to the Lampropeltis genus, classifying it as a kingsnake. Kingsnakes live all across the United States and routinely eat venomous snakes, although they are nonvenomous themselves.
Identification: The Arizona mountain kingsnake has similar banding to a coral snake. The best way to tell the difference is the banding and the head. Where coral snakes never have black banding sitting next to red banding, Arizona mountain kingsnakes do. Additionally, these snakes usually have white across their heads and are larger overall.
Long-Nosed Snake (Rhinocheilus lecontei)
The long-nosed snake is a nonvenomous snake that is native to the southwestern United States and Mexico.
Identification: Long-nosed snakes can be identified by their black and red banding, which is often interrupted with white, washed-out scales. Additionally, their heads have red near the top, and they have a noticeably upturned snout, giving them their name.
Milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum)
The milk snake is another coral snake mimic that belongs to the Lampropeltis genus. Milk snakes live all over the United States, with some reports of small regions across Arizona. These snakes can come in various colorations that mostly depend on the region where they are found. The small populations in Arizona are usually western milk snakes and have a similar pattern to coral snakes. Again, the best way to tell the difference is through the banding and the head.
What is a Coral Snake Mimic?
Coral snakes are some of the oldest and most venomous snakes found in the Americas. As a result, predators usually give these snakes a wide berth as the ancestors didn’t likely die off. Over long periods of evolutionary history, other snakes who happened to resemble coral snakes found safety in their likeness since most animals aren’t taking the time to recite rhymes to determine which snake is dangerous or not. This defense mechanism occasionally happens in the animal kingdom and is known as Batesian mimicry. Now, there are dozens of coral snake mimics, all of which are nonvenomous themselves.
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