- Owing to the scarlet kingsnake’s close resemblance to the venomous coral snake, predators are likely to give it a wide berth.
- The scarlet kingsnake is smaller than its more dangerous lookalike and only grows to 20 inches at most, while the latter is capable of reaching lengths of 30 inches.
- One key distinguishing feature of this harmless reptile is its red and yellow bands, which never touch but are always separated by black bands.
The scarlet kingsnake (Lampropeltis elapsoides) is one of the few snake species to make it to Hollywood. When a film includes a venomous coral snake, the scarlet kingsnake boldly steps in to take its place as a safer alternative. The 2006 film Snakes on a Plane, for example, used a scarlet kingsnake in place of the venomous eastern coral snake. The scarlet kingsnake makes an excellent body-double because of it uses Batesian mimicry. You see, even though this snake is nonvenomous and completely harmless, the colors and patterns of a scarlet kingsnake mimic those of the dangerous eastern coral snake. However, eastern coral snakes are typically longer than scarlet kingsnakes. But just how long is the largest scarlet kingsnake ever recorded? Let’s take a look!
What Does the Scarlet Kingsnake Look Like?
The scarlet kingsnake is nonvenomous. This snake’s brightly colored body is its primary defense against predators. These snakes have colors and patterns that look like the venomous coral snake. By using this Batesian mimicry (imitating the vibrant warning colors of a coral snake), the scarlet kingsnake can avoid many potential predators. When predators like raccoons, coyotes, opossums, eagles, or hawks see the colors and patterns of a scarlet kingsnake, they will turn away, thinking that it might be venomous like a coral snake.
The scarlet kingsnake has smooth scales covering its slender body, with alternating ring patterns of red, black, and yellow. Although these are the same colors and patterns of the venomous coral snake, there are a few differences. For example, the red and yellow bands on a scarlet kingsnake never touch. They are always separated by black bands (whereas red and yellow are next to each other on a coral snake). In addition, while a coral snake has a black head, the scarlet kingsnake has a red snout. Juvenile scarlet kingsnakes look like adult snakes but may have white instead of yellow bands until they get older.
What is the Largest Scarlet Kingsnake Ever Recorded?
Scarlet kingsnakes have glossy bodies that are typically between 14-20 inches long. The eastern coral snake, on the other hand, grows between 20-30 inches in length. However, the longest scarlet kingsnake ever recorded was 28 inches long!
Where Do Scarlet Kingsnakes Live?
The scarlet kingsnake lives in the eastern and southeastern regions of the United States. This snake prefers moist and humid habitats, although it sometimes lives in drier areas as well. The scarlet kingsnake commonly inhabits hardwood hammocks, wet pinelands, cultivated fields, and prairies. Occasionally these snakes have been discovered in city neighborhood areas, particularly when urban development encroaches into their natural habitats. Scarlet kingsnakes have even been found in swimming pools during the spring, although this is very rare.
Although these snakes can be abundant in many areas, humans rarely see them. This is because scarlet kingsnakes are extremely secretive and spend most of their lives either underground or hiding under logs, rocks, and other natural debris. These snakes are skillful climbers as well but are also prone to hiding under loose bark on trees.
Are Scarlet Kingsnakes Dangerous?
Even though they do a great job mimicking the dangerous coral snake, scarlet kingsnakes are nonvenomous and harmless to humans. When these snakes feel threatened, they vibrate the tip of their tails like a rattlesnake. Their tails might make a buzzing sound if the snake happens to be sitting on or near leaf litter or debris. These snakes will also emit a musk that has a foul smell. Scarlet kingsnakes are not typically aggressive, but they will quickly strike if they feel cornered, or if you try to grab them.
What Do Scarlet Kingsnakes Eat?
Scarlet kingsnakes are carnivores that especially enjoy eating lizards and small snakes. A kingsnake is literally a “king of snakes” because it often eats other smaller snakes. Many kingsnakes particularly seem to like skinks, but will also eat chameleons, anoles, eggs, and small mammals. Scarlet kingsnakes are constrictors and wrap their bodies around prey and squeeze until it stops breathing. Young scarlet kingsnakes often eat small invertebrates, frogs, and ground skinks.
Because of their bright coloring, scarlet kingsnakes are often collected by snake hunters. In addition, although mimicking coral snakes helps the scarlet kingsnake stay safe in the wild, this becomes a problem when these snakes encounter humans. Humans often kill or injure scarlet kingsnakes, mistaking them for venomous coral snakes.
However, scarlet kingsnakes are completely harmless! Therefore, it is helpful to familiarize yourself with these snakes. In the United States, many people use rhymes and sayings to help with remembering these differences, like “Red on yellow kills a fellow, red on black is a friend to Jack”. However, the best thing to do anytime you encounter a snake in the wild is to leave it alone.
Similar Species: Scarlet Snakes and Eastern Milk Snakes
The scarlet kingsnake also looks very similar to another snake, the scarlet snake (Cemophora coccinea). This snake also has red and yellow bands, separated by black. However, the markings on the scarlet snake do not completely encircle the snake’s body. Instead, these ring-like patterns only cover its back, leaving its white belly unmarked. The scarlet kingsnake, on the other hand, has colored rings or bands that completely encircle its body, both around the back and around its belly.
It is also easy to confuse the scarlet kingsnake with the eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum). In fact, for many decades the scarlet kingsnake was classified as a subspecies of milk snake, although more recent studies have disproved this assumption. Eastern milk snakes are also nonvenomous snakes, growing between 24-35 inches in length. These snakes are cream, tan, or gray, with black or brown-bordered blotches along the length of their bodies.
From above, these blotches can look very similar to the colored bands of the scarlet kingsnake. However, the colors of eastern milk snakes are typically not as bright and vibrant as scarlet kingsnakes. They also do not have red snouts. In addition, the belly of the eastern milk snake has alternating black and white checked patterns.
Other Record-Breaking Snakes
Several Burmese pythons have been contenders for the title of the largest ever found in the Everglades. One such instance was in 2012 when members of the U.S.
Geological Survey encountered a female Burmese python that measured 17 feet and 7 inches in length and weighed almost 165 pounds. This particular python was carrying 87 eggs when it was killed, and at the time, it held the record for the heaviest snake ever recorded in the Everglades.
However, on June 20, 2022, another Burmese python was captured in the Everglades, which set a new weight record at 215 pounds. This discovery marks a new chapter in the ongoing search for the largest Burmese python in the Everglades and adds to our understanding of these incredible creatures.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Radiant Reptilia/Shutterstock.com
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