Photo Credit: Roger Birkhead

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Micrurus fulvius (Linnaeus)

OTHER NAMES: Harlequin Coral Snake.

STATUS: Rare and possibly threatened. Few recent observations may indicate that this secretive species has declined in Alabama. Two more common and similarly patterned nonvenomous snakes, scarlet kingsnakes, and scarlet snakes, are frequently mistaken for eastern coral snakes. HIGHEST CONSERVATION CONCERN. 

DESCRIPTION: A medium-sized (max. length approx. 109 cm [43 in.]), slender snake with a short, blunt head only slightly wider than neck. Upper jaw has a pair of immovable, grooved, erect fangs near front. Scales smooth, in 15 rows near mid-body, and anal plate divided. Top of head and snout black and occiput has a broad yellow band. Body pattern consists of alternating, complete, transverse rings of red, yellow, and black (with red and yellow rings touching) that continue completely around venter (Wright and Wright 1957). Red bands may contain black pigment that coalesces into dark spots dorsally and ventrally. Aberrant color patterns encountered regularly.

DISTRIBUTION: East of the Mississippi River, extending from southeastern North Carolina southward through parts of South Carolina and Georgia, all of Florida and westward through southern parts of Alabama and Mississippi, into the southeastern extreme of Louisiana (Roze and Tilger 1983). In Alabama, formerly considered “common” along the lower Coastal Plain and infrequent in the Red Hills. Northern limits of distribution in Alabama not clearly determined. Principally occuring in Coastal Plain from Buhrstone/Lime Hills southward, but also known from disjunct localities in southern Ridge and Valley (Bibb and St. Clair Counties) and Piedmont (Coosa County). 

HABITAT: A variety in the Southern Pine Plains and Hills ecoregion. Prefers a variety of habitats that are dry, open, or brushy areas with loose, friable soils ranging from hardwood forests to pine flatwoods. Apparently spends much time buried in soil, leaf litter, logs, or stumps. Like many other reptiles of the Coastal Plain, also may frequent gopher tortoise burrows when available. Primarily diurnal, being most active above ground during early morning and late afternoon and evening (Mount 1975).

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Secretive and semifossorial. Very little information from Alabama available. Mating occurs in spring and possibly in fall. From two to 13 elongate eggs (usually four to seven) laid underground, or beneath leaf litter. Young may hatch in August or September, after an incubation period of 70 to 90 days (Ernst 1992). Specimens may double in size in less than two years. Natural longevity unknown, but one individual lived almost seven years at the Brookfield Zoo, Chicago (Ernst and Barbour 1989). Hunts reptilian prey with random head thrusts into leaf litter and debris. Prey items seized and chewed vigorously to envenomate. This envenomation mechanism not as effective as that of pit vipers (with larger, hollow fangs). Feeds almost entirely on burrowing reptiles, including small lizards (e.g., skinks, glass lizards, fence lizards) and small snakes (e.g., green snakes, ringneck snakes, crowned snakes, and other coral snakes). Frogs and rodents rarely eaten. Diurnal predaceous birds (American kestrels, hawks, shrikes) known to depredate. Snake-eating snakes (including other coral snakes) and bullfrogs also are known predators. Although not considered aggressive, species does possess the most toxic venom of any North American snake; thus, potentially very hazardous to humans and should never be handled.

BASIS FOR CLASSIFICATION: Information on virtually every aspect of life history, ecology, status, and distribution in Alabama is extremely scarce. Because of its apparent decline in recent years, considered rare and possibly threatened. May be undetected in areas where it might occur. However, a decade ago specimens were encountered on a regular basis in southern Alabama. Local biologists in Mobile County have not collected a specimen for several years, despite field studies that have been ongoing continuously in habitats where they were known to occur. Most serious threat to populations is probably habitat destruction. Fire ant predation may have caused a major decline in prey species. Much of the environmental deterioration in southern Alabama can be attributed to the loss of the longleaf pine-turkey oak-wiregrass community. Urban expansion, management practices of agriculture and forestry, land clearing, use of pesticides and herbicides, and fire ants all may have contributed to the decline.

 Author: David H. Nelson