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Monday, August 4, 2014

Red and Yellow Fellow

Many of us have heard the sayings “Red on black, friend of Jack, red on yellow, kill a fellow” or “Red against black, venom lack” as a way for us to distinguish between non-venomous lookalike snakes, and the venomous coral snake.  Over 65 species of coral snakes are recognized in the New World, but in Texas we have our own version.  The Texas Coral Snake (Micrurus tener), actually ranges from the south central US (Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas) south to northeastern and central Mexico.

Texas coral snakes have the traditional black, yellow, and coral red banding coloration encircling the body that is associated with all coral snakes. They are slender snakes with smooth scales, eyes with round pupils, and average two feet in length.  Males are typically smaller than females, but both are shy and secretive, typically nocturnal and spending most of their time hiding under logs, in leaf litter, or in ground burrows.  Fairly common in the Austin area, they typically feed on other smaller snakes and occasionally lizards, and are often attracted to suburban yards and gardens where they can more easily find their prey.

While no deaths have occurred in Texas from a coral snake bite, their venom is a powerful neurotoxin that causes neuromuscular dysfunction.  Usually encountered by people when weeding or gardening, coral snakes do have a hard time injecting venom into a human because of their small, blunt head and short, fixed fangs.  Bites usually occur on the hand or in between fingers, and the snake has to chew in order to inject the venom.  Most people don’t allow them to hang on long enough to do much serious damage, but anyone bitten by a coral snake should seek medical attention immediately.

Much debate has ensured about whether or not the Texas Coral Snake’s bold coloration in and of itself acts as a warning signal to potential predators, but recent studies have shown that this coloration is only effective when combined with the coral snake’s distinctive threat behavior.  When confronted, they will raise their yellow- and black-banded tail tip and slowly wag it at the threat (presumably mimicking a strike with their similarly colored head), all while keeping their head safely and neatly tucked under a body coil.  

If you are lucky enough to run across this native red & yellow fellow, remember that Texas Coral Snakes are an integral part of our ecosystem, and enjoy their striking colors and distinctive pattern from a distance!