Warning: this one’s pretty dark.
Please look closely at this next photo.
See it? That gossamer red-yellow-black-yellow-red-again banding? That’s a coral snake. One of the most deadly snakes in the Americas.
I know, “deadly” is a tricky term taking into account aggression, bite frequency, venom volume and potency. And it’s hard to definitively tell, let alone compare between species. It’s not like volunteers are lining up to test snakebites. But drop for drop, the coral snake’s venom has one of the highest human mortality rates among all snakes, a whopping 80% if injected and left untreated.
Coral venom is a slow-acting paralytic neurotoxin. It doesn’t cause the near-immediate pain, swelling, and necrosis of a viper bite. But gradually, tingling and numbness spreads from the tiny bite to surrounding tissue, eventually slowing the heart and lungs. The process takes hours.
Personal disclosure: I lost a friend a few years back while he was working a field job in the Tropics. Cause of death is still unknown, but based on the story he was quite possibly bit by a coral and responders didn’t recognize the symptoms. He always did like to catch snakes.
But why do we not hear about these things more often? Why are deaths from corals so rare? Part of it is the snakes themselves. They’re very shy, and usually non-aggressive. Most of their lives are spent underground, looking for lizards and smaller snakes, and when they do emerge it’s usually briefly at night. Their mouths are small and fangs are short–they simply have a hard time delivering any venom which, after all, is intended for small prey and not large predators.
But still: 80%. And that small mouth and tiny bite? Some can even go unnoticed. A previous workplace of mine told of a former resident scientist who was bitten on the heel while sitting on a toilet. He didn’t mention the bite to anyone and went to bed early feeling “tired.” The paralysis must have set in after he lay down and he never woke up.
The bright colors are an appropriate warning: “Back off.” Or more accurately, “I have a baddass defense mechanism, so make your move.” It’s a distinct pattern that’s so effective, some bird and mammals species are born with an innate fear response to it, and many species of nonvenomous mimics adopt the same pattern.
Ever heard the “If red touches black…” rhyme for telling apart corals and their mimics? I’m going to stop right there and reiterate something I’ve mentioned before: in the Tropics, forget that rhyme. It doesn’t apply. There are too many variations, and not all corals have the same pattern. Seriously, forget it.
Still don’t believe me? One more story. One apocryphal account retold among herpetologists concerns an expert ophidiologist who took a group of his grad students to the Amazon for a snake survey. One of them misidentified a coral as a mimic, and handed it to the professor in a bag. His last words were purportedly something along the lines of, “Oh, fuck, it’s a Micrurus.”
In memory of my friend, you know who you are, you crazy bastard.