The First Coral Snake Sighting for 2016

This article by Jerry Cates, and Jenny & Colyn Crews, was first published on 7 May 2016 and last revised on 7 May 2016. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 17:05(01).

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Coral Snake photographed by Jenny Crews,

Coral Snake photographed by Colyn Crews, CORAL SNAKE 7 MAY 2016

Jenny and Colyn Crews live near Nolanville, not far from Stillhouse Lake. We’ve been good friends since they first shared photos of wildlife found in their neighborhood and elsewhere, back in 2011.

Their neighborhood, like much of Texas, is home to a wide range of critters, many of them snakes of various kinds. Each year, several coral snakes are found near or in their yard. On or about 7 May 2016, the first coral snake of the year showed up. Colyn took a video as it meandered away, then Jenny emailed me:

Greetings, Mr. Cates

I thought you might enjoy the video clip my husband took of the first coral snake sighted in our yard this spring. He (the snake) was determined to go in a southern direction, and of course, we deferred to his wishes. Hope you are well. 

Jenny Crews

Click on the link in the caption of the photo, to view the video Colyn took.

Texas Coral Snake (Micrurus tener) physical characteristics

The Texas Coral Snake is the most colorful of our venomous serpents. We have non-venomous serpents in Texas that are as colorful, but not one is more so.

Narrow, bright yellow rings separate the broader red and black body rings in such a way that the black and red body rings never touch one another. From the snout to just past they eye, the head is black, followed by a broad yellow band across the back of the crown that separates the black head from the black neck band. The next band is again yellow, at the nape of the neck, followed by the first red band, and thereafter the color pattern follows the typical black-yellow-red-yellow, black-yellow-red-yellow characteristic of North American coral snakes.

Red and yellow rings on North American (north of Mexico) coral snakes are always in direct contact with each other, and the rings continue uninterrupted around the entire body, including the belly. This fact gave rise to the rhyme Red touch black, friend of Jack; red touch yellow, kill a fellow.” Some of our non-venomous snakes are colorful and are either ringed or appear to be ringed, but not one of our non-venomous snakes with both black and red markings, have black markings that do not touch their red markings directly.

Many of our non-venomous serpents have black and red markings, and in every case the black and red marks are in direct contact with each other.

Examples of Non-Venomous Snakes Sometimes mistaken for Coral Snakes:

  • Northern Scarlet Snake (Cemophora coccinea copei): has red saddles with black margins — separated from one another by a moderately dark gray background coloration — that dorsally may appear to be red and black rings; the red and black marks touch directly.
  • Texas Scarlet Snake (Cemophora coccinea lineri): similar to the northern scarlet snake, above, except the gray background coloration is lighter.
  • Gray-banded King Snake (Lampropeltis alterna): this serpent is highly variable in its color pattern, but in the color phases that include red saddles with black margins the red and black markings contact one another directly.
  • Louisiana Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum amaura): this serpent has broad red saddles, margined in black, with each saddle separated from one another by a narrow yellowish to orange background coloration. In all the milk snakes the saddles appear to extend all around the body, when the snake is viewed from above, but in fact the saddles stop at the belly and do not extend beyond that point ventrally.
  • Mexican Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum annulata): similar to the Louisiana subspecies, but with a background coloration that is more orange than yellowish.
  • New Mexico Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum celaenops): similar to the Louisiana subspecies, but with a lighter background coloration that in some specimens is more gray than yellowish.
  • Central Plains Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum gentilis): similar to the New Mexico subspecies but with a lighter grayish background coloration.
  • Texas Long-Nosed Snake (Rhinocheilus lecontei tessellatus): a colorful snake with dark black saddles, separated by red blotches bordered in scales that are partly whitish-yellow in color; here the presence of yellowish borders less than one scale wide might be thought of as violating the North American Coral Snake identification rhyme, but they are so thin as to not register as bands to the eye. The dark black saddles are only darkened on the spine, and are interspersed with white speckles on the sides.
  • Great Plains Ground Snake (Sonora semiannulata semiannulata): this serpent has gray to black bands alternating with reddish to grayish bands; no yellow bands are present.

The Texas coral snake, at maturity, ranges in length from 20-30 inches, though a record length of 47.25 inches has been reported.

The Texas subspecies — found mostly in Texas, Louisiana, and southern Arkansas — is similar to the Eastern subspecies — found east of the Mississippi — but differs from the Eastern subspecies by (1) having the black pigmented scales in the red rings more widely scattered and (2) with the black neck band extending further forward on the head, so that it involves the posterior tips of the parietal scutes. The Eastern subspecies is also different in that the last third of the body is often slightly muted in coloration, while the stark candy-striping of the body of the Texas subspecies remains true throughout the length of its body.

Reproduction

The coral snakes are the only venomous serpents in the United States and Canada that lay eggs. Coral snakes mate throughout the year, while most other Texas serpents mate only in the spring. Though the female only ovulates in the summer, the sperm from a previous mating — as long ago as the previous August or September — remains viable in the female’s oviducts until ovulation. White eggs measuring 1.5 inches long are laid 2-12 in a clutch in June or July, usually in decomposing organic material such as loose soil or the decaying matter inside a rotted log. The young hatch from their eggshells about two months later, and on emergence measure 6.5-8 inches long.

Behavior

Coral snakes are typically secretive, often hiding under leaves and debris, in logs, and similar habitats. They prowl mostly by day, especially in the early morning.

The Texas coral snake is primarily found in the lowlands, including the Edwards Plateau, in cedar brakes and rocky canyons, and on rocky hillsides. Their favorite food is slender lizards and small snakes, particularly — in Texas — the Rough Earth Snake (Virginia striatula) and the Western Earth Snake (Virginia valeriae elegans).

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Taxonomy:

  • Kingdom Animalia (ahn-uh-MAYHL-yuh) — first described in 1758 by the Swedish taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus [23 May 1707 – 10 January 1778], using the Latin word animal = “a living being,” from the Latin word anima = “vital breath”, to refer to multicellular, eukaryotic organisms whose body plans become fixed during development, some of which undergo additional processes of metamorphosis later in their lives; most of which are motile, and thus exhibit spontaneous and independent movements; and all of whom are heterotrophs that feed by ingesting other organisms or their products;
  • Phylum Chordata (kohr-DAY-tuh) — animals that have, at some point in their life cycle, a hollow dorsal nerve cord, pharyngeal slits, an endostyle, and a post-anal tail.
  • SubphylumVertebrata (vurr-tuh-BRAY-tuh) — chordate animals with backbones and spinal columns;
  • Class Reptilia (repp-TILL-ee-uh) — first described in 1768 by the Austrian naturalist of Italian origin Josephus Nicolaus Laurenti (1735 – 1805), using the Latin verb reptilis = to creep or crawl, in reference to recumbent vertebrate animals that breathe air, lay shelled eggs (or, less often, give live birth), and have skins that are covered in scales and/or scutes;
  • Order Squamata — reptiles whose skins bear horny scales or shields, and who possess movable quadrate bones that enable them to move their upper jaw separately from the bones of their braincase;
  • Clade Toxicophera — (from the Greek τοξικον “tox-ih-kon” = a poison, esp. a poison arrow + φερειν “fer-ein” = to carry, convey, thus ‘that which brings poison’), is a clade of scaled reptiles (squamates) that includes the Serpentes (snakes), Anguimorpha (monitor lizards, gila monster, and alligator lizards) and Iguania (iguanas, agamas, and chameleons); this clade contains about 4600 species, (nearly 60%) of extant squamata, and embraces all venomous reptile species, as well as numerous related non-venomous species; though scant morphological evidence exists in support of this grouping, recent molecular analysis is strongly supportive;
  • Clade Ophidia (oh-FIDD-ee-uh) — first described in 1804 by Pierre André Latreille (29 November 1762 – 6 February 1833), a French zoologist who specialized in arthropods; he included under this grouping those squamate reptiles such as modern snakes and all reptiles more closely related to snakes than to other living groups of lizards;
  • Suborder Serpentes (sur-PENN-tees) — elongated, legless, carnivorous reptiles without eyelids and external ears;
  • Infraorder Alethinophidia (ah-leth-en-oh-FYE-dee-uh) — first described by Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás, also variously known as Baron Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás, Baron Nopcsa, Ferenc Nopcsa, Nopcsa Ferenc, Baron Franz Nopcsa, and Franz Baron Nopcsa (May 3, 1877 – April 25, 1933), a Hungarian-born aristocrat, adventurer, scholar, and paleontologist who is today widely regarded as one of the founders of paleobiology and Albanian studies; the Alethinophida are considered “advanced snakes,” and comprise an infraorder that includes all snakes other than blind snakes and thread snakes, in which are recognized 15 families, 9 subfamilies and 316 genera;
  • Family Elapidae (ee-LAPP-uh-dee) — first described in 1823 by Friedrich Boie (4 June 1789 – 3 March 1870), a German entomologist, herpetologist, ornithologist, and lawyer, who crafted the family name from the Greek word ἔλλοψ “éllops”= sea-fish, to refer to a family of venomous snakes found in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, mostly as terrestrial serpents in Asia, Australia, Africa, North America, and South America, and mostly as aquatic serpents in the Pacific and Indian Oceans; Elapids are found in a wide range of sizes, from the small, 18-cm species of Drysdalia, to the 5.6-m king cobra; all elapids are characterized by hollow, fixed fangs through which they inject venom; at present a total of  325 species in 61 genera are recognized; 58 genera and 251 species are in the Old World, while only three genera and 74 species are found in the New World;
  • Genus Micrurus (MY-crew-russ) — first described by Johann Georg Wagler (28 March 1800 – 23 August 1832), a German herpetologist who was an assistant to Johann Baptist von Spix, and gave lectures in Zoology at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich after that was moved to Munich; Wagler worked on extensive collections brought back from Brazil by Spix, and published partly together with him books on reptiles from Brazil; the genus Micrurus is comprised of 80 recognized species of venomous coral snakes of the family Elapidae, all of which are endemic to the Americas;
  • Species Micrurus tener (tinner) — first described in 1853 by the two scientists Baird and Girard; Spencer Fullerton Baird (February 3, 1823 – August 19, 1887), was an American naturalist, ornithologist, ichthyologist, herpetologist, and the first curator to be named at the Smithsonian Institution; Charles Frédéric Girard (8 March 1822 – 29 January 1895) was a French biologist specializing in ichthyology and herpetology; Micrurus tener is a species of venomous elapid snake, which is relatively common and widespread throughout the Southern United States and northeastern and central Mexico; four subspecies are presently recognized; the nominal subspecies found in both the US and Mexico is commonly known as the Texas coral snake and is often known by its synonym Micrurus fulvius tener.

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— Questions? Comments? Corrections? e-mail jerry.cates@entomobiotics.com. You may also leave a comment in the space provided below.

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