Coral snakes are sometimes called “American cobras” because, like the cobras of Asia and Africa, they are both venomous snakes in the family Elapidae. However, coral snakes lack the flattened “hood” that cobras are known for showcasing in their defensive posture.
In the United States, most species of coral snake exhibit a pattern where the black and red bands are separated by yellow bands in between, leading to a rhyming verse: “Red touch yellow, kill a fellow, red touch black, friend of Jack”. This verse is meant to help distinguish venomous coral snakes from nonvenomous snakes that feature similar coloration and patterning, but with a different arrangement. Kingsnakes, milksnakes, scarlet snakes, and some species of hognose snake all have patterns that mimic the coral snake.
However, it should be noted that this rhyme is not always accurate, particularly regarding some species of coral snake found in Central and South America. While the rhyme can be helpful in certain situations, it should not be the only resource to identify coral snakes.
Coral snake venom is quite potent, but due to the coral snake’s non-aggressive demeanor and overall avoidance of humans, coupled with their small fangs, dangerous bites are quite rare. They typically prefer to flee when confronted by humans, and will only bite if prevented from escaping. While bites are rarely life threatening, anyone bitten by a coral snake should seek medical attention.