The Scarlet kingsnake, Lampropeltis elapsoides, is a tri-colored, non-venomous species often confused with the venomous Coral snake (Micrurus fulvius). You’ve probably heard some variant of the rhyme before:
Red on yellow, kill a fellow;
Red on black, friend of Jack.
The rhyme implies that snakes with red rings touching on yellow rings are venomous coral snakes while snakes with red rings touching on black rings are not. Though this rhyme often applies in Florida, it’s really not a very good metric to rely on unilaterally. It doesn’t apply to all parts of the world (or even all of North America), and there can be aberrant Coral snakes in Florida that simply don’t follow the rhyme… Thus, while it may seem like a handy rhyme to remember, it’s simply not a reliable diagnostic overall. I discourage people from relying solely on it. When it comes to the complexities of nature, rhymes and slogans rarely carry much weight when truly tested in reality. The only exception I can think of is the phrase “Shit happens,” which is an apt description of the second law of thermodynamics (entropy). Heh. That’s pretty much always true in my experience. Shit does indeed tend to happen, and then we have to deal with it.
Scarlet kingsnakes are also somewhat similar to another tri-colored (non-venomous) species in Florida: The Florida scarlet snake (Cemophora coccinea coccinea), a species I’ll feature in our next post. As you’ll see, the head shape is different, as is the coloring and width of the rings. The most notable difference between the two non-venomous tri-colored species is the coloring on the ventral scales. Whereas the Scarlet king’s rings wrap all the way around the body, the Florida scarlet snake’s belly tends to be a creamy off-white.
To compare and contrast Florida scarlet snakes from Scarlet kingsnake, check out this page. To do the same with Florida scarlets, Scarlet kings, and Harlequin coral snakes, check out this page. Those are links to little one-sheet graphics I made for social media purposes.
I found the Scarlet kingsnake featured here prowling about my backyard — likely in search of a small lizard or small snake (their preferred diet). Scarlet kings only average upwards to a bit shy of two feet in length as adults, so this is a fairly small and reclusive species. They’re most active at night and spend much of the day hidden beneath surface debris or behind the bark of old, dying trees. They’re exceptionally good at hiding, which is twice impressive given the brightness of their coloring!
NOTE: I found this snake the night before I took these photographs. I kept it in a temporary terrarium overnight to share with my daughter the next morning. These photographs were taken shortly before releasing it back into my yard the next day.