coral snake, name for poisonous New World snakes of the same family as the Old World cobras. About 30 species inhabit Mexico, Central America, and N South America; two are found in the United States. The Eastern coral snake ( Micrurus fulvius ), or harlequin snake, is found in the SE United States and N Mexico. It is a burrowing snake with a small, blunt head and a cylindrical body, averaging 21/2 ft (75 cm) in length. The body is ringed with bands of black, red, and yellow; the tail has yellow and black rings only. The Sonoran, or Western, coral snake ( Micruroides euryxanthus ) is a rather rare species found in the SW United States and NW Mexico. It is about 18 in. (45 cm) long and has much broader bands of yellow than those of the Eastern species. Coral snakes can be distinguished from a number of similarly colored harmless snakes by the fact that they are the only ones with red bands touching yellow ones. The venom of coral snakes, like that of cobras, acts on the nervous system and causes paralysis; the mortality rate among humans who are bitten is high. However, coral snakes are infrequently encountered because of their burrowing habits, and they seldom bite unless handled. They feed on other snakes and on lizards. Coral snakes are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Reptilia, order Squamata, family Elapidae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.