Eastern coral snakes (Micrurus fulvius) are native to the Nearctic region, particularly in the southeastern United States. Their range extends along the Atlantic Coastal Plain from southeast North Carolina into Florida, and westward along the Gulf of Mexico as far as eastern Louisiana. (Gibbons and Dorcas, 2005; Hammerson, 2007; Roze and Tilger, 1983; Wilson, 1995)
Eastern coral snakes inhabit temperate, terrestrial environments with vegetative clutter, such as forests, coastal plains, and wetlands. They are fossorial and spend much of their time underground, under logs and rocks, or among decaying organic matter. Eastern coral snakes can be found in mesic, hydric, and xeric environments. They inhabit a wide range of woodlands, including areas dominated by hardwood species, such as scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia) or maritime-live oak (Quercus virginiana), and softwoods, such as longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) or slash pine (Pinus elliottii).
Particularly in Florida, eastern coral snakes are commonly found in sandhills or stands of trees surrounded by wetlands (also called hammocks). In some parts of their range, eastern coral snakes also inhabit residential areas. There is no reported elevation range for eastern coral snakes. (Gibbons and Dorcas, 2005; Hammerson, 2007; Steen, et al., 2015; Wilson, 1995)
Eastern coral snakes are slender, smooth-scaled snakes. They have repeating patterns of long black and red bands that are separated by narrow yellow bands. Juveniles have the same patterns as adults, although they have lighter coloration that darkens as they mature. Eastern coral snakes are proteroglyphous, meaning they have a pair of rigid, fixed front fangs that deliver venom.
Eastern coral snakes have black snouts and a yellow band on the posterior half of their heads. This feature distinguishes them from scarlet snakes (Cemophora coccinea) and scarlet kingsnakes (Lampropeltis elapsoides), both of which are non-venomous. Scarlet snakes and scarlet kingsnakes both have red snouts and have different patterns of red, black, and yellow bands compared to eastern coral snakes. In both non-venomous species, red bands are directly bordered by black bands, which does not occur in the normal color variant of eastern coral snakes.
Eastern coral snakes exhibit sexual dimorphism. Females tend to have larger bodies, but shorter tails compared to males. Females typically range from 62.0 to 72.7 cm in snout-vent length (SVL), whereas males range from 53.9 to 54.7 cm in SVL. On average, males have tails that are 13.8% the length of their SVL, the tails of females are 9.3% the length of their SVL. There is limited information on the average body mass of adults, regardless of sex. Eastern coral snakes lay elongated eggs that are approximately 14 mm wide, 38 mm long, and weigh around 3.2 g. Newly hatched eastern coral snakes are around 17.8 to 20.3 cm in total length (TL). Before reaching maturity, juvenile males reach 40 to 50 cm in SVL whereas juvenile females reach 44.6 to 55.5 cm in SVL. (Campbell, 1973; Filoramo and Schwenk, 2009; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2005; Jackson and Franz, 1981; Margres, et al., 2013; Marques, 1996; Roze and Tilger, 1983; Weis and McIsaac, 1971)
Eastern coral snakes are the only known oviparous venomous snakes in North America. Their eggs are soft, white, and more elongated than the eggs of other snakes. Their eggs weigh around 3.2 g and measure around 38 mm in length and 14 mm in width. Eastern coral snake females lay clutches with an average of 7 eggs, although clutch sizes range from 2 to 12 eggs. Eggs incubate for 7 to 13 weeks and hatching occurs between August and September. Newly hatched eastern coral snakes measure 20 cm in snout-vent length (SVL) and weigh 2.5 g, on average. Hatchlings have lighter red bands of coloration compared to adults. Eastern coral snakes shed their skin for the first time around 2 weeks after hatching and their red bands get darker each time they shed their skin. They may not eat for up to 2 months after hatching.
Eastern coral snakes grow rapidly after hatching, but growth rates slow dramatically between January and February. Females reach sexual maturity after around 15 months, when they measure 50 cm in SVL, on average. Males reach sexual maturity after 12 to 21 months, at an average SVL of 40 cm. Coral snakes exhibit indeterminate growth, meaning they grow throughout their life, although growth rates decrease dramatically after they reach maturity. Females and males exhibit similar growth rates for several years, but male growth rates decrease after three years, whereas female growth rates decrease after four years. Females lay their first clutch of eggs when they are around 21 months old and about 55.5 cm in SVL. Adult males reach 53.9 to 54.7 cm in SVL and adult females reach 62.0 to 72.7 cm in SVL at just over three years. Eastern coral snakes from populations in Florida tend to be larger than individuals from other parts of their geographic range. The largest reported male was 68.5 cm in SVL and the largest reported female was 97.1 cm in SVL. (Campbell, 1973; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2005; Jackson and Franz, 1981; Marques, 1996; Marques, et al., 2013; Quinn, 1979)
Eastern coral snakes are polygynous and their mating season extends from March to May. Males produce sperm from July to May, with peak sperm production occurring in fall months, and store sperm in specialized ducts until mating season. After mating with males, females can also store sperm for up to 7 months. Sexually-receptive females release pheromones that attract males to their location. Courting males rub their heads and bodies against females. If females are willing to mate with a male, they raise their tails and allow males to coil around them. Once a mating pair is coiled together they align their cloacae, males evert paired reproductive organs, called hemipenes, and insert them into the cloaca of their mate. In some cases, multiple males pile on one reproductive female until one male can insert its hemipenes.
Female eastern coral snakes typically lay one clutch of 2 to 12 eggs per year. They lay their eggs in underground tunnels, leaf piles, or other moist, protected places. Females ovulate between March and May and reduce ova production in June. Females usually lay their eggs in June, and eggs incubate for 7 to 13 weeks before hatching. (Campbell, 1973; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2005; Jackson and Franz, 1981; Margres, et al., 2013; Marques, 1996; Marques, et al., 2013; Quinn, 1979)
Eastern coral snakes are iteroparous. Females likely breed just once yearly, between March and May, but it is possible that they mate a second time in the fall, after laying their first brood of eggs. Males make multiple breeding attempts between March and May, competing with other males for access to females.
Eastern coral snake clutch sizes range from 2 to 12 eggs, with an average of 7 eggs. There are no reports of gestation period, but eggs incubate for 7 to 13 weeks after they are laid. Eggs increase in size as they incubate. Hatchlings have a temporary egg tooth, which they use to break through their shells. The process of hatching takes about 4 hours. Newly hatched eastern coral snakes weigh an average of 2.5 g and measure around 20 cm in snout-vent length (SVL). Juveniles are fully independent upon hatching.
Female eastern coral snakes reach sexual maturity at around 15 months old, at which point they measure around 50 cm in SVL. However, females do not lay their first clutch of eggs until they are about 21 months old and measure 55 cm in SVL. Males reach sexual maturity when they are between 12 and 21 months old, or at an average of 40 cm in SVL. Males produce sperm between July and May, with peak sperm production occurring in fall. They store sperm until the beginning of mating season. After mating, females can store sperm for up to 7 months. (Campbell, 1973; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2005; Jackson and Franz, 1981; Marques, 1996; Marques, et al., 2013; Quinn, 1979)
Eastern coral snakes provide limited parental investment. Females lay their eggs in protected areas that are appropriate for incubation, but provide no parental investment after laying their eggs. Males exhibit no parental investment beyond the act of mating. (Campbell, 1973; Jackson and Franz, 1981; Marques, 1996; Quinn, 1979)
There is limited information regarding the longevity of eastern coral snakes. The oldest reported wild individual was 13 years old, but it is unclear whether this individual remained in the wild throughout its life or if it was collected from the wild and lived most of its life in captivity. A captive Texas coral snake (Micrurus tener) was reported to live 19 years. It is possible that eastern coral snakes would have similar maximum lifespans, since the two species are closely related. (Myhrvold et al., 2015)
Eastern coral snakes are solitary outside of breeding season. They spend much of their time underneath logs, rocks, and organic matter, or in underground burrows excavated by other animals. Eastern coral snakes are primarily diurnal, though they occasionally exhibit crepuscular behavior. Males are most active during the breeding season, between March and May. Females show comparatively low activity in spring and are even more sedentary through the summer when they are gestating eggs. During breeding season, females mostly stay in underground burrows, whereas males actively seek out females and attempt to mate. After females lay eggs in June or July, they exhibit higher surface activity through November. During this time, females feed intensively and may mate with reproductive males.
Eastern coral snakes are endothermic, and thus move between microhabitats to thermoregulate. In the morning and evening, they heat their bodies in areas warmed by the sun; during particularly hot parts of the day, they retreat to shady areas. In early spring and fall, eastern coral snakes are active from around 0900 h until sunset, with a period of inactivity between 1300 and 1600 h. In late spring and summer, they are most active from sunrise to 0900 h and from 1600 h to sunset, with a longer period of inactivity between 1000 and 1600 h. Eastern coral snakes enter brumation for several weeks during winter, when temperatures are lowest. When they are not active, eastern coral snakes typically rest in underground burrows or other shaded, well-protected areas. Active behaviors include basking, foraging, and seeking mates or mating. Although their activity above ground is well studied, it is unclear how active they are underground. Eastern coral snakes eat infrequently, and the time between meals can range from 3 to 21 days. Juveniles may not eat their first meal for up to 2 months after hatching.
Female eastern coral snakes typically breed once per year, but sometimes twice, whereas males mate with multiple females in a mating season. Females lay one clutch of eggs per year. Males find mates by following pheromones released by reproductive females. Multiple males may compete for access to one female at the same time, aggregating in large numbers. Eggs incubate for an average of 7 weeks and hatchlings are immediately independent. (Campbell, 1973; Filoramo and Schwenk, 2009; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2005; Greene, 1973; Jackson and Franz, 1981; Margres, et al., 2013; Marques, 1996; Marques, et al., 2013; Neill, 1957; Quinn, 1979; Roze and Tilger, 1983; Steen, et al., 2015; Weis and McIsaac, 1971; Wilson, 1995; Wysocki, 1979; Young, et al., 1999)
There is limited information regarding the home ranges of eastern coral snakes. There is currently no evidence that eastern coral snakes are territorial. (Gibbons and Dorcas, 2005; Jackson and Franz, 1981; Neill, 1957; Quinn, 1979; Roze and Tilger, 1983; Steen, et al., 2015)
Eastern coral snakes rely on a variety of stimuli to perceive their environment. They flick their tongues in and out of their mouth to pick up scent chemicals from their environment and insert them into their vomeronasal organs, located at the posterior end of their nasal cavities. Eastern coral snakes rely heavily on scent to detect prey, avoid predators, and find potential mates. Although eastern coral snakes use scent to locate their prey, they also rely on visual and acoustic cues to accurately strike at prey. Eastern coral snakes have poor vision but can detect movement at short distances. They also have no external ears but can detect vibrations propagating through the ground, such as those from footsteps.
Eastern coral snakes communicate with conspecifics primarily using chemical and physical cues. Reproductive females release pheromones to attract males and mating pairs coil around each other before aligning their cloacas. Eastern coral snakes also use various visual cues to deter potential predators. They flatten their bodies to appear larger and they have patterns of black, red, and yellow coloration that many animals recognize as a sign of toxicity. Eastern coral snakes also assume a body position with their heads tucked under their bodies and their tails looped to resemble a head. Predators will attack the false head, leaving eastern coral snakes free to bite and deliver venom. A closely related species, Texas coral snakes (Micrurus tener), will also produce a popping sound from their cloacas when they are threatened, which may startle and deter predators. (Filoramo and Schwenk, 2009; Jackson and Franz, 1981; Marques, 1996; Marques, et al., 2013; Wysocki, 1979; Young, et al., 1999)
Eastern coral snakes primarily feed on other limbless reptiles, including limbless lizards and other snakes. However, they also eat insects, amphibians, and mammals. Although there is limited information on the diet composition of eastern coral snakes, they likely have diets similar to Texas coral snakes (Micrurus tener), which are closely related. A 1973 study from Texas found that Texas coral snakes primarily consumed aquatic and terrestrial snakes, such as eastern racers (Coluber constrictor), mud snakes (Farancia abacura), flat-headed snakes (Tantilla gracilis), ring-necked snakes (Diadophis punctatus), rough green snakes (Opheodrys aestivus), and lined snakes (Tropidoclonion lineatum). They also consumed copperheads (genus Agkistrodon), rat snakes (genus Pantherophis), kingsnakes (genus Lampropeltis), water snakes (genus Nerodia), patchnose snakes (genus Salvadora), hook-nosed snakes (genus Ficimia), brown snakes (genus Storeria), blind snakes (genus Leptotyplops), ground snakes (genus Sonora), dipsadid snakes (genus Tropidodipsas), earth snakes (genus Virginia), and other coral snakes (genus Micrurus). Texas coral snakes also consume lizard species, including five-lined skinks (Plestiodon fasciatus), four-lined skinks (Plestiodon tetragrammus), ground skinks (Scincella lateralis), fence lizards (genus Sceloporus), and glass lizards (genus Ophisaurus). Texas coral snakes typically consume lizard prey between 4 to 6 cm in total length (TL) and snake prey between 20 to 40 cm in TL, although they have been reported to consume rough green snakes up to 80 cm in TL. Prey that are too large can be fatal when ingested.
Eastern coral snakes exhibit seasonal and regional variation in diet. They feed year-round, although females feed most intensively from August to November, after they lay eggs. Eastern coral snakes thrust their heads into leaf piles or crevices to search for prey. They ingest their prey headfirst if possible. After ingestion, they raise their heads briefly and then coil in a sheltered area for several days.
Eastern coral snakes hunt by following chemical trails that prey leave behind. They are active hunters, foraging for prey both underground and above ground. Eastern coral snakes have powerful, neurotoxic venom, which affects the nervous system and can lead to heart attacks or respiratory failure. They typically inject 2 to 5 mg of venom per bite. One study found that the lethal dose of eastern coral snake venom was between 0.007 to 0.076 mg for house mice (Mus musculus) that ranged in weight from 18 to 22 g. There is no information on the lethal dose of eastern coral snake venom for more typical prey items, such as snakes and lizards. (Gibbons and Dorcas, 2005; Greene, 1973; Jackson and Franz, 1981; Margres, et al., 2013; Weis and McIsaac, 1971)
Primary predators of eastern coral snakes are other large snakes, such as indigo snakes (Drymarchon couperi), kingsnakes (genus Lampropeltis), racers (genus Coluber), and other coral snakes (genus Micrurus), although cannibalism is rare. Eastern coral snakes also serve as prey items for birds, such as red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus), loggerhead shrikes (Lanius ludovicianus), and falcons (genus Falco). There are also some reports of predation by domestic cats (Felis catus) and American bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus), and red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) are reported to consume eastern coral snake eggs and juveniles.
Eastern coral snakes have aposematic coloration, which deters many predators from attacking them. They typically flee if they feel threatened, seeking cover underground or beneath leaf litter. If they cannot escape, they flatten their bodies to appear larger and more intimidating. They also hide their heads beneath their bodies and loop the ends of their tails to resemble a head. If a predator strikes at the false head, eastern coral snakes have their heads free to bite the predator and potentially escape. Although it is primarily used to incapacitate their prey, eastern coral snake venom is highly toxic and can cause severe injury or death even in large, predatory animals. (Filoramo and Schwenk, 2009; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2005; Hammerson, 2007; Jackson and Franz, 1981; Margres, et al., 2013; Roze and Tilger, 1983; Weis and McIsaac, 1971; Young, et al., 1999)
Eastern coral snakes are predators that eat various snake and lizards species, as well as some insects, amphibians, and small mammals. They likely play a role in controlling the population sizes of prey species. Eastern coral snakes are eaten by other snakes and birds of prey. There are also reports of domestic cats (Felis catus), American bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus), and red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) eating eastern coral snakes.
Eastern coral snakes also serve as hosts for endoparasites, such as Asian tongueworms (Raillietiella orientalis), which can have serious negative effects on the respiratory systems of host species. Eastern coral snakes are also hosts for nematodes such as Oxysomatium variabilis, Oxysomatium tibetanur, and species in the genus Aplectana. (Filoramo and Schwenk, 2009; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2005; Harwood, 1930; Jackson and Franz, 1981; Margres, et al., 2013; Palmisano, et al., 2021; Roze and Tilger, 1983; Weis and McIsaac, 1971; Young, et al., 1999)
Eastern coral snakes are sold illegally as part of the pet trade through licensed and unlicensed collectors, breeders, or dealers. Eastern coral snakes have complex neurotoxic venom, which has been a subject of research regarding the evolution and production of venom, as well as the manufacture of antivenoms. Eastern coral snakes have also been used to study the neurological pathways involved in the activity of vomeronasal organs. (Enge, 2005; Margres, et al., 2013; Wysocki, 1979)
Coral snakes have highly toxic venom, which can cause serious injury or death in humans. However, eastern coral snakes are not aggressive and typically only attack if threatened or provoked, such as when they are picked up or approached too closely. Their venom contains neurotoxins that can cause paralysis, heart failure, and respiratory depression. Treatment involves a combination of intravenous antivenom and separate treatment of symptoms that are not neutralized by antivenoms, such as pre-synaptic neurotoxicity. There are two main antivenoms for eastern coral snake venom: North American coral snake antivenom (NACSA) and Coralmyn. (Filoramo and Schwenk, 2009; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2005; Jackson and Franz, 1981; Margres, et al., 2013; Roze and Tilger, 1983; Weis and McIsaac, 1971; Yang, et al., 2017; Young, et al., 1999)
Coral snakes are listed as a species of "Least Concern" on the IUCN Red List. They have no special status on the US Federal List, CITES, or State of Michigan List. A report from 2018 stated that they are considered endangered in North Carolina, imperiled in South Carolina, and of “Highest Conservation Concern" in Alabama.
Climate change is likely to affect the behavior of eastern coral snakes. They tend to be inactive during the hottest parts of the day, so increasing temperatures would reduce the amount of time that eastern coral snakes can be active diurnally. Eastern coral snakes are also threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, as natural habitat in their geographic range is being replaced by urban, suburban, and agricultural land. There is also a high rate of snake mortality associated with roadways. Snakes often bask on warm surfaces, which puts them at high risk of being killed if they bask on asphalt roads. Eastern coral snakes are a part of the illegal pet trade, although the impact on wild populations appears minimal. Eastern coral snakes also serve as hosts for endoparasites that can negatively affect their health and are a potential risk to the health of overall populations. Additionally, invasive red fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) prey on eastern coral snake eggs and juveniles, which likely impacts populations size. Humans also kill coral snakes, but the reported numbers are not high enough to cause direct population declines.
There are few efforts directed towards conserving eastern coral snakes specifically. However, there are conservation measures in place to protect their natural habitats, such as wetlands, dunes, and forests. Furthermore, the geographic range of eastern coral snakes includes state and federal parks, which are protected from development or disturbance. In Alabama, eastern coral snakes are considered a nongame species, making it illegal to capture, kill, sell, or trade them without proper permits. (Archis, et al., 2018; Enge, 2005; Gibbons and Dorcas, 2005; Hammerson, 2007; Harwood, 1930; Jackson and Franz, 1981; Margres, et al., 2013; "Nongame Reptiles Protected by Alabama Regulations", 2022; Palmisano, et al., 2021; Roze and Tilger, 1983; South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, 2015; Wilson, 1995; Yang, et al., 2017)
Coral snakes are also commonly known as harlequin snakes or candy cane snakes. Previously, the species Micrurus fulvius was separated into several subspecies, including eastern coral snakes (Micrurus f. fulvius), Texas coral snakes (M. f. tener), Guanajuato coral snakes (M. f. fitzingeri), Tampico coral snakes (M. f. maculatus), and spotted coral snakes (M. f. microgalbineus). However, eastern coral snakes were recently distinguished from the other subspecies, which are now considered to be subspecies of Texas coral snakes (Micrurus tener). (Gibbons and Dorcas, 2005; Hammerson, 2007; Roze and Tilger, 1983; Wilson, 1995)
emily brandow (author), Radford University, Sierra Felty (editor), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Galen Burrell (editor), Special Projects.
living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.
having coloration that serves a protective function for the animal, usually used to refer to animals with colors that warn predators of their toxicity. For example: animals with bright red or yellow coloration are often toxic or distasteful.
having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.
an animal that mainly eats meat
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
active at dawn and dusk
a substantial delay (longer than the minimum time required for sperm to travel to the egg) takes place between copulation and fertilization, used to describe female sperm storage.
animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature
union of egg and spermatozoan
forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.
Referring to a burrowing life-style or behavior, specialized for digging or burrowing.
Animals with indeterminate growth continue to grow throughout their lives.
An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.
marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.
having the capacity to move from one place to another.
the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.
reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.
the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.
chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species
having more than one female as a mate at one time
"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area; graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.
communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them
scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.
breeding is confined to a particular season
remains in the same area
reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female
mature spermatozoa are stored by females following copulation. Male sperm storage also occurs, as sperm are retained in the male epididymes (in mammals) for a period that can, in some cases, extend over several weeks or more, but here we use the term to refer only to sperm storage by females.
living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.
uses touch to communicate
that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).
Living on the ground.
an animal which has an organ capable of injecting a poisonous substance into a wound (for example, scorpions, jellyfish, and rattlesnakes).
movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others
uses sight to communicate
young are relatively well-developed when born
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