How Poisonous is a Coral Snake?

How the venom of a coral snake acts on its victim

Venomous snakes are some of the most dangerous animals on the planet. Estimates show that they are responsible for 81,000 to 138000 deaths a year. The reason these snake bites are so deadly is because they contain venom. Although coral snakes have only accounted for one recent death, they actually have quite a potent venom.

 

People often use the phrase “poisonous snake,” which is actually incorrect. Snakes are venomous animals. While poisonous animals also do kill people, there is a difference .

The Difference Between Poison and Venom

“Poison” and “venom” are often used interchangeably but are actually not the same thing. First, starting with the similarity: both poisons and venoms are proteins. They can be harmful to living creatures and can even be fatal. The difference is in how the toxin takes effect.

 

Poisons are chemicals that cause harmful effects when they get into our bodies through our skin, digestive system, respiratory systems, or another route. An example of a poisonous animal would be a cane toad. This is an animal that secretes poison from its skin. If another animal tries to eat it or even licks it, this poison enters the predator’s stomach. This harms the predator.

 

Venom, on the other hand, is a specialized poison. It is a poison that is injected into an animal’s bloodstream. This is typically seen in animals like snakes, scorpions, and spiders. Venom is only effective if it goes into the blood of an animal. In fact, drinking venom will cause no harm to the body (unless there is a cut in the digestive tract, allowing it to enter the bloodstream).

Venom enters the bloodstream when the snake punctures a blood vessel with the help of fangs
Venom enters the bloodstream when the snake punctures a blood vessel with the help of fangs, Credit: Wikimedia/Usman Ahmad

Venom in Snakes

In a general sense, snake venom can be placed into two broad categories: neurotoxins(neuro: nerve) and hemotoxins(heme: an iron-containing compound. Over here it refers to haemoglobin in the blood).

 

Neurotoxins affect the nervous system of their victim. They harm the functioning of different types of nervous tissues by affecting the synapses. This means that these venoms interrupt the transfer of signals from one nerve to the other.

 

Hemotoxins, on the other hand, affect blood and organs directly. Hemotoxins attack red blood cells and break them down. This is not all they do, as they can also cause the breakdown of other tissues in vital organs.

 

Although venom can be broadly placed in one of these two categories, every snake has a specific venom of its own. These venoms attack different parts of the body and need different antivenoms to treat them. Therefore, identifying the exact species of snake that has attacked a person is very important.

Coral Snakes and Their Venom

Identifying the snake

 

Coral snakes belong to the snake family Elapidae (the cobra family). This family contains various species of snakes like the king cobra and the black mamba. “Coral snakes” refers to snakes that fall under five genera, with 100 of those species included in New World coral snakes, made of two genera: Micruroides and Micrurus.

A coral snake, a very colorful snake with bands of red, yellow, and black
A coral snake, a very colorful snake with bands of red, yellow, and black, Credit; wikimedia/Norman.benton

Coral snakes can range in length from 40cm to 160cm. They are most easily identified by their colorful bands of red, black, and yellow (or white). There are some non-venomous species of snakes that exhibit biomimicry of coral snakes; for example, the scarlet king snake. Coral snakes have bands of red, black, and yellow, but so do species like the king snake. Mimicking the coral snake helps the non-venomous species by causing predators to avoid it.

 

Although, there is an easy way to tell the venomous snakes apart from their look-alikes . The difference is that in coral snakes, the red band will always touch the yellow band, but in the others, the red band will touch the black band. An easy way to tell them apart is by remembering the phrase, “Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, venom lack.”

The scarlet king snake looks a lot like a coral snake, but not quite the same
The scarlet king snake looks a lot like a coral snake, but not quite the same, Credit: flickr.com/Florida Fish and Wildlife

The Snake’s Toxins

Members of Elapidae have neurotoxins, but as said before, each type of snake will have its own unique venom. The venom of the coral snake affects the diaphragm, making it difficult to breathe… but this process can take up to 13 hours.

 

The venom of a coral snake enters the body of its victim through their blood vessels. At first, they will experience mild pain where they got bitten. After that, they may also start feeling nauseated, dizzy, feel a pain in their abdomen, and may start to vomit.

 

Eventually, the venom will start affecting the nervous system. You will start to see signs like droopy eyelids, and the victim will have trouble controlling the muscles needed to speak. They might also have trouble swallowing food and liquids.

Ptosis is the condition in which an eyelid becomes droopy because nerves are not functioning properly.
Ptosis is the condition in which an eyelid becomes droopy because nerves are not functioning properly, Credit: flickr.com/Community Eye Health

Now comes the most deadly part of the snake’s toxins. The venom finally starts to affect the respiratory system. The muscles controlling the lungs become weak and make breathing very difficult. The heart of the patient will also start to fail as some of the blood flows back into the heart. This happens because the pulmonary valve stops functioning properly.

 

Once there is a lack of oxygen in the blood, the victim eventually dies.

Conclusion

Although the venom of a coral snake is extremely deadly, the real risk of dying from a coral snake bite is almost none. Out of 9,000 snake bites that happen in the USA each year, only 25 to 50 are from coral snakes. Snake bites like these can be treated in a hospital, with the help of antivenom.

 

Coral snakes, like most snakes, are very shy and tend to avoid humans. The only time they bite is if they feel threatened.

 

Moreover, there has been only one death from the bite of a coral snake in the USA in the past 40 years. So, it is safe to say that the risk of dying because of a coral snake’s venom shouldn’t keep you up at night.

Glossary

Venom: A toxic substance secreted by animals such as snakes, spiders, and scorpions, and typically injected into prey or aggressors by biting or stinging

 

Digestive tract: The passage through which food travels through the body, from the mouth to the anus.

 

Antivenom: A specific treatment given to combat the effects and neutralize the venom in the body

 

Genera: Groups of closely related species. The singular is “genus.” In the scientific name of a living creature, it is the first name. For example, in Panthera leo (lion), Panthera is the genus.

 

Biomimicry: When an animal imitates another species in looks or behavior to gain some ecological advantage.

 

Diaphragm: A muscle located below the lungs. The contraction and relaxation of this muscle is what makes animals breathe.

 

Pulmonary valve: One of the valves in the heart. It prevents blood from flowing back into the heart.

Flesch Kincaid grade level: 8

 

Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 64.9

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