Jul/Aug 2008For Wildlife Watchers: Eastern coral snakeby Rob Simbeck, photography by Steve Bennett

Memory aids have never done much for me. The first one I recall is "George Eckert's Old Grandfather Rode A Pig Home Yesterday," which someone on the playground cited as help in spelling "geography." Well, even in second grade I knew that was a long path around a small puddle, and besides, I couldn't help being a lot more interested in why the elder Eckert chose porcine transport in the first place. I figured he must have been kin to Mayberry's town drunk, Otis Campbell, who once rode a cow into town.

The one that went "Thirty days has September" wasn't very helpful either, because my brain always went straight to: "All the rest I don't remember." When the stakes went up, I was even less impressed. "Venomous snakes have pupils that are vertically slit, while those of the non-venomous varieties are rounded" was particularly bothersome. If I can tell what its pupils look like, it's probably already got a good grip on my forearm, and the difference only holds true for pit vipers, like rattlesnakes. And most people aren't exactly lightning quick under pressure anyway. Many of us who calmly toss off those Jeopardy answers from the couch would no doubt suffer paralyzing brain freeze faced with Alex, lights and cameras, our buzzers sitting useless in our sweat-soaked hands.

Eastern coral snake - Micrurus fulvius fulvius

Description: Averages 24 to 30 inches in length. Thin-bodied snake with thick red and black bands divided by thin yellow bands.

Range and Habitat: Isolated spots along the coastal plain where the soil is not compacted.

Reproduction: Spring and sometimes fall. Three to five eggs that hatch after two months.

Viewing Tips: Potentially seen in spring or fall, morning and evening, amid leaf litter on the forest floor, around wood piles. Rarely encountered.

There is one memory aid, though, that seems to get the job done. "Red on yellow, kill a fellow" ranks with Ogden Nash's "Candy's dandy but liquor's quicker" for pith and utility. It's short, sweet and rhythmic, it rhymes, and its predicate is all business. Granted, it's best to jettison the rest of the couplet, "red on black, friend to Jack," which needlessly complicates matters, but if you run across a gorgeous, medium-sized snake with red, yellow and black bands and you're in South Carolina, this is the ditty to call to mind. If red and yellow connect, you've got a venomous coral snake. If red and yellow never touch, it's a scarlet snake or a scarlet king snake, both of which are non-venomous and much more common. In fact, running across a coral snake is pretty unlikely.

"They're very hard to find here," says Steve Bennett, herpetologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. "They occur potentially anywhere in the coastal plain, including mixed pine/hardwood forests or sandhill areas where the soil is relatively loose and friable, but they're very spottily distributed." They may not be rare - we really don't know their numbers - but even when active they are generally hidden, searching for prey underground, in rodent or other burrows, under logs, leaf litter or boards. Seeing them is a matter of finding them above ground, something likely only in parts of the spring and fall.

Even then, there is more parsing to do with the "kill a fellow" bit. The coral snake's venom does indeed have the potency to dispatch an adult human - this is a relative of the cobra and the mamba - but such bites are rare, amounting to less than one percent of venomous snake bites. Even then, coral snake anatomy is such that it takes a little work on the snake's part.

"They have short, fixed fangs, rather than the long, retractable ones of the pit vipers," says Bennett. "They'd have to chew on you a bit to inject much venom. You almost have to be want to be bitten by a coral snake."

If you're prey, though - another, smaller snake or sometimes a lizard - your odds of getting bitten increase dramatically, and full envenomation is no problem. These are called "minute snakes" because that's about how long it takes for their venom to kill prey, which they swallow whole. Coral snakes feed heavily in the spring and fall but may well lie practically dormant in between.

"A friend sewed a radio transmitter into a coral snake," says Bennett, "and monitored it for three or four months and it literally never moved. He figured it had died under a board, but it turned out it was fine."

When the snake is disturbed, it lays its head out of sight and rattles its flattened and elevated tail, which resembles a head. Coral snakes are thin-bodied and generally about 24 to 30 inches long, although they have been known to reach 4 feet. Their rounded heads are the same width as their bodies, and they have round pupils and black noses - another way of telling them apart from the red-nosed scarlet and scarlet king snakes.

Their secretive nature adds complication to an already difficult mating process. Their ranges are small, and their sight and hearing aren't that hot, so it's tough enough to locate a mate in the first place. Then, she may be in the mood to fight, a not-uncommon scenario. But if all goes well, in late spring (and sometimes again in the fall) they may connect. He will flick his tongue at the female, then stroke her back with his nose. She lays three to five eggs, which look like long pieces of Good and Plenty candy. The young emerge after about two months, the size of night crawlers, fully capable of delivering toxic venom and already displaying their colored bands.

Those bands hardly seem to be the best camouflage, but there may be more to the story.

"The evolutionary impetus might not be for when the animal is stationary," says Bennett. "It may be that when it is moving, the colors set up the illusion that it's moving backward, confusing predators."

You don't want to get me started on the whole "red on yellow" thing if the snake is, say, quickly doubling back on itself near my hiking boot. But know that if I see that blur of color, I will be, in the most cool and calm manner possible, recalling the "kill a fellow" thing clearly as I move, with great alacrity, away.

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