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Coral Snakes vs Kingsnakes: 5 Key Differences Explained

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Coral snakes and scarlet king snakes are often confused, which is certainly an easy mistake to make given their striking similarities. After all, they all have bright colors and similar markings, and even live in some of the same habitats. So, is it really possible to tell them apart, given how similar they are? The answer is yes, and there are actually quite a few key differences between them.

First, one is deadly, one is relatively harmless, and one is much larger than the other. They even kill their prey in different ways, where one is actually the other's predator. But that's not all there is to know about these fascinating snakes, so join us as we discover all their differences, and how to tell exactly which snake is venomous.

coral snake vs-kingsnake-5-key-differences-explained-1
There is a key difference between kingsnakes and coral snakes. King snakes even prey on coral snakes!

© AZ-Animals.com

Comparing Scarlet King Snake vs Coral Snake

Of all the kingsnakes, the scarlet kingsnake is the most likely to be mistaken. Scarlet kingsnakes and coral snakes are brightly colored and striking. However, their distinctive banded appearance means they can easily be mistaken for each other. The scarlet kingsnake belongs to the genus Lampropeltis , which means "shining shield" in Greek. There are currently about nine recognized species of kingsnakes and about 45 subspecies.

There are two groups of coral snakes – the Old World and the New World – that are found in different regions. Old World coral snakes live in Asia and New World coral snakes live in the Americas. There are 16 species of Old World coral snakes and more than 65 species of New World coral snakes.

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In this article, we only include the three species of American coral snake (Eastern, Texas, and Arizona) and the scarlet king snake because they are often confused. Also, coral snakes become more unique in color and pattern once you leave the United States.

Although there are some differences between the different species of American coral snakes and scarlet king snakes, there are some key differences that distinguish the two types. Check out the table below for some key differences.

Scarlet King Snake American Coral Snake
size Usually 16-20 inches, they are the smallest snakes among the Lampropeltis. Usually 18 to 20 inches, but Texas coral snakes may reach 48 inches.
Place North America, All America and Mexico. Southern half of the United States and northern Mexico, from Arizona to the East Coast.
Habitat Varies, but includes forests, grasslands, scrubland, and deserts In forested areas, burrows in the ground or under leaves. Coral snakes in desert areas burrow into the sand or soil.
color Banded coloring – usually red, black and yellowish. The red and black stripes touch each other. Vivid Colors – American snakes usually have black, red and yellow stripes around the body. The red and yellow bands touch each other.
poisonous No Yes
diet Lizards, snakes, and larger specimens may also eat small mammals. Frogs, lizards, other snakes
killing method shrink Paralyzes and subdues prey with venom
predator large birds of prey, such as eagles Birds of prey, such as eagles, other snakes, including kingsnakes
life 20 to 30 years 7 years

5 Key Differences Between Coral Snakes and King Snakes

There are a number of key differences between kingsnakes and coral snakes. First, king snakes are larger and non-venomous, while coral snakes use venom to hunt their prey. King snakes even hunt coral snakes. Additionally, king snakes have red and black stripes that touch each other, while most coral snakes have red and yellow stripes that touch each other. Let’s dive into the main differences between these two types of snakes!

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1. Coral Snake vs Kingsnake: Colors

Coral snakes have distinctive stripes, red and yellow next to each other

© iStock.com/JasonOndreicka

While scarlet king snakes and coral snakes tend to look similar, there are some notable differences between them. Scarlet kingsnakes have smooth, shiny scales that are usually red, black, and yellowish in color. The red and black bands are usually touching.

Texas and eastern coral snakes are brightly colored, usually with black, red and yellow stripes. The yellow color of the Arizona coral snake can be very pale, almost white. In individuals with normal patterns, the red and yellow bands touch each other. Coral snakes also have a short, blunt snout and a black head behind the eyes.

In areas where both coral snakes and scarlet king snakes are found, there is a saying that helps people remember the difference – "yellow on red kills, black on red kills friends". However, this rhyme only helps identify a typical American coral snake. There are many examples of coral snakes with unusual patterns. In addition, Arizona has a small, non-venomous Sonoran shovel-nosed snake (Chionactis palarostris) , which has red and yellow stripes.

Coral Snake vs Scarlet King Snake: Venom

One of the biggest and most important differences between king snakes and coral snakes is their venom. Coral snakes have short, permanently erect fangs, and their venom contains an extremely powerful neurotoxin that affects the brain's ability to control muscles. Symptoms include vomiting, paralysis, slurred speech, muscle twitches, and even death.

King snakes, on the other hand, have no fangs and are not poisonous, so they are not dangerous to humans. Their teeth are conical but small, so even a bite is harmless.

Coral Snake vs Scarlet King Snake: Size

Scarlet king snakes are not much different in size from most American coral snakes. Scarlet king snakes average 14-20 inches long, while eastern and Arizona coral snakes average 16-20 inches long. However, Texas coral snakes are significantly larger, reaching up to 48 inches in some cases.

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Coral Snake vs King Snake: Habitat

Most coral snakes prefer forests or wooded areas, where they like to burrow underground or hide under leaves. The Arizona coral snake hides in rocky outcrops and is more of a desert dweller than the Eastern and Texas coral snakes.

Scarlet king snakes are nocturnal and burrowing animals, and they are likely to be found in the same areas as eastern and Texas coral snakes.

Coral Snakes and King Snakes: Diet

scarlet king snake slithering
King snakes are pythons that kill their prey by suffocating

© iStock.com/JasonOndreicka

Scarlet king snakes and coral snakes have slightly different diets, but one of the main differences between them is the method by which they kill their prey. Coral snakes eat lizards, frogs, and other snakes. Since they are venomous snakes, they attack their prey and inject poisonous venom with their fangs. Their venom subdues their prey so they can swallow it effortlessly.

Scarlet king snakes typically eat lizards and small snakes, but larger individuals may also eat small mammals. The "king" part of their name refers to the fact that they are predators that eat other snakes. Scarlet kingsnakes are boa constrictors that first kill their prey by wrapping their bodies tightly around them until their hearts stop from the stress caused by the constriction. Despite having teeth, king snakes don't actually use them to chew their food. Instead, after killing their prey, they swallow it whole and use their tiny teeth to guide it down the throat.

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FAQ's (Frequently Asked Questions)

Are coral snakes and king snakes in the same family?

No, king snakes are from the Colubridae family, the largest snake family. Members of the Colubridae family can be found on every continent in the world except Antarctica. Coral snakes belong to the cobra family, which is a type of venomous snake. Elapidae snakes are characterized by their permanently upright fangs, which they use to deliver deadly venom, rather than retractable fangs.

Do coral snakes lay eggs?

Yes, coral snakes are oviparous, laying eggs rather than giving birth to live young. King snakes are also oviparous.

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king snake curled up in the grass
King snakes are often mistaken for coral snakes.

© Matt Jepsen/Shutterstock.com


about the author


For many years, I have been writing professionally, with an emphasis on animals and wildlife. I love spending time outdoors, and when I'm not writing I'll be found on a farm surrounded by horses, dogs, sheep and pigs.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Are coral snakes and king snakes in the same family?

No, king snakes are from the Colubridae family, the largest snake family. Members of the Colubridae family can be found on every continent in the world except Antarctica. Coral snakes belong to the cobra family, which is a type of venomous snake. Elapidae snakes are characterized by their permanently upright fangs, which they use to deliver deadly venom, rather than retractable fangs.

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