Other common names
Eastern Coralsnake, Coralsnake
Most adult harlequin coralsnakes are about 20-30 inches (51-76 cm) in total length. This is a thin-bodied snake with alternating red and black rings separated by narrower yellow rings. The small head is not distinct from the neck and has a rounded black snout followed by a broad yellow band behind the eyes. The coloration of juveniles is the same as described for adults.
Range in Florida
Harlequin coralsnakes are found throughout Florida and in every county. They also occur on Key Largo in the northern Florida Keys.
Assessment of risk to people and pets
VENOMOUS Bites from harlequin coralsnakes can be very dangerous to people and pets, but bites from this species are extremely rare. The victim should seek immediate medical care from a physician or hospital experienced in treating snakebites. Harlequin coralsnakes are not aggressive and avoid direct contact with people and pets. Virtually all bites occur when the snakes are intentionally molested.
Comparison with other species
Scarlet kingsnake (Lampropeltis elapsoides) Non-venomous Scarlet kingsnakes have red, black, and yellow (or white) rings down the body. However, the narrow yellow rings only contact the black rings, not the red rings as in harlequin coralsnakes. The rings completely encircle the body as in harlequin coralsnakes. They have red snouts.
Scarletsnake (Cemophora coccinea) Non-venomous Scarletsnakes have red, black, and yellow (or white) rings down the body. However, the narrow yellow rings only contact the black rings, not the red rings as in harlequin coralsnakes. Unlike harlequin coralsnakes, the rings do not completely encircle the body; the belly is a cream white color and unpatterned. They have red snouts that are somewhat pointed.
Most adult harlequin coralsnakes are about 20-30 inches (51-76 cm) in total length, with a record length recorded of 47.5 inches (220.7 cm). This is a thin-bodied snake with alternating broad red and black rings separated by narrow yellow rings. The red rings usually contain black flecks and spots. The tail has alternating black and yellow bands. The scales of the body are smooth and shiny. The small head is not distinct from the neck and has a rounded black snout followed by a broad yellow band behind the eyes. The pupil is round, and the tiny eyes are black like the rest of the snout, making them difficult to see. The coloration of juveniles is the same as described for adults.
Harlequin coralsnakes occupy a variety of habitats, from dry, well–drained flatwoods and scrub areas to low, wet hammocks and the borders of swamps. They are secretive and are usually found under debris and in the ground. Occasionally they are found in the open, and they have even been seen climbing the trunks of live oaks. This species is occasionally found in suburban neighborhoods where development encroaches into favorable habitats.
When approached, harlequin coralsnakes will typically flee to safety. However, they will often flatten the hind part of their bodies, hide their head beneath their coils, and waive their tail in the air. The tail display is used to distract a predatory attack from the head to the tail, where it will not likely be lethal. If grabbed or pinned, however, they will readily bite the attacker. Nonetheless, these snakes are not aggressive, and striking is only used in defense as a last resort.
Harlequin coralsnakes feed almost exclusively on lizards and other small snakes, which are killed by envenomation. These snakes actively forage for prey by crawling slowly along the ground while probing their heads into the leaf litter. Several studies suggest these snakes are primarily diurnal.
In Florida, females typically lay around 4-13 white, elongate, leathery eggs, which hatch between August and September. The eggs are often laid underground or in leaf litter.
Contrary to folklore, harlequin coralsnakes have small fixed fangs located in the front of the mouth on the upper jaw. Although they will often bite and chew on an attacker if grabbed, chewing is not required for them to quickly inject venom.
Harlequin coralsnakes are extremely secretive and rarely seen. Their shy nature, along with their reluctance to bite unless grabbed or pinned, helps to explain why bites from these snakes are so rare. If you are lucky enough to see one of these beautiful snakes in the wild, it is best to simply let it be and enjoy the rare opportunity to see one of these elusive animals.
Two nonvenomous snake species in Florida have color patterns that closely resemble the color pattern of harlequin coralsnakes (see section on comparison with other species above). Whether this similarity in color pattern represents mimicry, and in what capacity, remains a subject of long-term debate.
“Red touches yellow, kill a fellow; red touches black, venom lack”. This and similar rhymes are commonly used to differentiate the banding sequence of harlequin coralsnakes from their harmless mimics in Florida. Although these rhymes hold true most of the time in Florida, remember that unusual color variations do occasionally occur that break the rules. Therefore, if you are not 100% positive of the identification of a snake, it is best for everyone involved to leave it alone.
Alachua, Baker, Bay, Bradford, Brevard, Broward, Calhoun, Charlotte, Citrus, Clay, Collier, Columbia, De Soto, Dixie, Duval, Escambia, Flagler, Franklin, Gilchrist, Glades, Gulf, Hamilton, Hardee, Hernando, Highlands, Hillsborough, Indian River, Jackson, Jefferson, Lafayette, Lake, Lee, Leon, Levy, Liberty, Madison, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Nassau, Okaloosa, Okeechobee, Orange, Osceola, Palm Beach, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, Saint Johns, Saint Lucie, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, Seminole, Sumter, Suwannee, Taylor, Union, Volusia, Wakulla, Walton, Upper FL Keys
If you have a new or interesting observation for this species, please email the herpetology staff at the Florida Museum.
Ernst, C.H. and E.M. Ernst. 2003. Snakes of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC. 668 pp.
Greene, H.W. and R.W. McDiarmid. 1981. Coral snake mimicry: does it occur? Science 213 (4513): 1207-1212. DOI: 10.1126/science.213.4513.1207
Krysko, K.L., K.M. Enge, and P.E. Moler. Amphibians and Reptiles of Florida. 2019. University of Florida Press, Gainesville, Florida. 706 pp.
Powell, R., R. Conant, and J.T. Collins. 2016. Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. Fourth edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, Boston and New York. xiv + 494 pp.
Share your observations
You can help scientists better understand the biology and distribution of this species by sharing your observations. Send photos or videos of interesting observations, along with associated information, by emailing the herpetology staff at the Florida Museum for documentation in the Museum’s Herpetology Master Database. You can also post your observations on iNaturalist.
Additional helpful information
Do you have snakes around your house? Learn how to safely co-exist with snakes.
Still have questions about snakes or identifications? Feel free to email the herpetology staff at the Florida Museum with your questions or feedback about this profile.
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