Coral snakes are a large group of elapid snakes that can be subdivided into two distinct groups, Old World coral snakes and New World coral snakes. There are 16 species of Old World coral snake and over 65 recognized species of New World coral snakes. Genetic studies have found that the most basal lineages are Asian, indicating that the group originated in the Old World.
Coral snakes in North America are most notable for their red, yellow/white, and black colored banding. Coral snakes found in other parts of the world can have distinctly different patterns, have red bands touching black bands, have pink, blue, white, and black banding, or have no banding at all.
Most species of coral snake are small in size. North American species average around 3 feet in length, but they can reach maximum of 5 feet. Aquatic species have flattened tails acting as a fin, aiding in swimming.
Coral snakes vary widely in their behavior, but most are very elusive, burrowing snakes which spend the most of their time buried beneath the ground or in the leaf litter of a rainforest floor, coming to the surface only when it rains or during breeding season. Some species are almost entirely aquatic and spend most of their lives in slow-moving bodies of water that have dense vegetation.
Coral snakes feed mostly on smaller snakes, lizards, frogs, nestling birds, small rodents, etc.
Like all elapid snakes, coral snakes possess a pair of small hollow fangs to deliver their venom. The fangs are positioned at the front of the mouth. The fangs are fixed in position rather than retractable, and rather than being directly connected to the venom duct, they have a small groove through which the venom enters the base of the fangs. Because the fangs are relatively small and inefficient for venom delivery, coral snakes tend to hold onto their prey and make chewing motions when biting. The venom takes time to take full effect.
Coral snakes are not aggressive or prone to biting and account for less than one percent of the number of snake bites each year in the United States.