If you grew up in the U.S. you might have learned a funny rhyme about coral snakes when you were younger. But.. how does it even go? Something about black, yellow, and red stripes right? Well, most people will recite something like this:
“Red touches black, friend of Jack. Red touches yellow, kills a fellow.”
There are many different versions of this rhyme that all say the same thing. But we haven’t asked the most important question!
Is the coral snake rhyme always true?
It depends. The coral snake rhyme often holds true for coral snake and milk snake species in North America. Many coral snakes with yellow and red bands touching are venomous, and most milk snakes that have black and red bands touching are not venomous. But, there are many exceptions to this “rule.”
Let’s do a deep dive into this famous saying and see how trustworthy it really is!
What Are The Origins of the Coral Snake Rhyme?
The coral snake rhyme is exclusive to North America. As we will discuss later this rhyme quickly becomes false as you move south on the globe. It is not commonly recited or taught in other countries.
It’s easy to assume that this saying originated in the U.S. Rumors say that the phrase came from the boy scouts, around 70 years ago! This rhyme was taught to boy scouts to keep them safe in case of a snake encounter.
Even if the creator of this saying isn’t identified, one thing we can be certain of is the species that this rhyme focuses on! This rhyme is indeed about coral snakes and compares them to milk snakes.
What Are Coral Snakes?
Although coral snakes sound like they might belong in the sea, they’re actually a large group of cobra-like land snakes!
Coral snakes can be found in many of the temperate states in the U.S. They can be difficult to find as they often burrow and hide during the day. Coral snakes are fairly small and stay on the ground. These snakes are known for their bright striping color patterns, which is where our rhyme comes from!
Most coral snake species have black, red, and yellow stripes circling their bodies. On coral snakes, the black and red stripes never touch. In line with the saying, the red and yellow stripes do touch, and yes, these snakes can kill you.
How Dangerous Are Coral Snakes?
Coral snakes have one of the most potent venoms in the U.S. Like all other cobras, they deliver their venom through hollow fangs. But, don’t worry too much, coral snake fangs are short and sometimes can’t penetrate a layer of clothing.
Coral snake bites in the U.S. are also very uncommon because of how secretive these snakes are. Only about 15-25 coral snake bites are reported every year. That being said, if anyone is bitten by a coral snake, they will need to get medical care ASAP!
What Are Milk Snakes?
Milk snakes are the other group of snakes that our rhyme talks about.
Milk snakes are a species of kingsnake that can be found in the eastern half of the U.S. Their range even goes as far up as southern Canada. Milk snakes, like coral snakes, are fairly reclusive and nocturnal. This makes them low maintenance and fairly easy pets! They are terrestrial but like many snakes can climb or swim in a pinch.
Milk snakes are medium-sized snakes in the wild. Most importantly, milk snakes have a very similar coloration to coral snakes. Milk snakes also have transverse bands of black, red, and yellow colors along their bodies. The difference with milk snakes is that for the most part, the red and yellow bands never touch each other.
“Red touches black, friend of Jack.” On milk snakes, red and black bands touch each other. According to the rhyme, this means that milk snakes are not a danger to you.
Are Milk Snakes Dangerous?
Milk snakes are not dangerous to humans. These snakes are docile, non-venomous, and more likely to flee than fight. As a primary defense milk snakes actually employ aposematic mimicry. This means that milk snakes look a lot like venomous snakes, which deters predators without the snake having to do anything!
Is The Coral Snake Rhyme Always True?
As we mentioned earlier, the coral snake rhyme is not always true, but, that doesn’t mean it’s not useful.
In general, most coral snakes and milk snakes will follow a normal coloration pattern. By using the coral snake rhyme, you can tell the difference between these groups of snakes. Keep in mind that this rhyme is only useful in the U.S. Once you go south of the border into Mexico, there are many different species of snakes that can prove this rhyme wrong.
Personally, I think the most important part of this saying is the half that warns you away from coral snakes. And it’s true that for the most part, when red and yellow bands touch, you are looking at a coral snake. Remember that coral snakes are incredibly venomous.
This rhyme is true if you take it as a warning that snakes with this color pattern are potentially dangerous.
Are There Other Ways To Identify A Coral Snake?
If you’re not 100% sure of your ability to identify color patterns in a pinch, there is one other great trick to identifying coral snakes.
Coral snakes almost always have a black “nose.” This means that the front part of a coral snake’s head is covered in sleek, black, scales. If you’re close enough to a coral snake to see its black head, that could be a good sign to start moving away from it!
This youtube video gives more e in-depth identification information.
How Can You Remember The Coral Snake Rhyme?
As useful as the coral snake rhyme could be, it’s also possible to get these words mixed up. If you’re someone who doesn’t stay calm under pressure, you could easily shuffle the order of the words in this rhyme.
Here are a few different versions of this rhyme.
- Red on black, safe for Jack. Red on yellow, kills a fellow.
- Red on black, venom lack. Red on yellow can kill a fellow.
- Red touches black, friend of Jack. Red touches yellow, kill a fellow.
I won’t deny that these sayings are lengthy and confusing. As I mentioned above the most important part of this rhyme to remember is the red and yellow part. Personally, I make this saying easier to remember by only memorizing half of it.
I always think “red on yellow kills a fellow.” This way, I know that if I encounter a snake in the wild that has red and yellow bars touching on its body, it is probably dangerous. In general, I’m no Steve Irwin and if I encounter a snake while hiking, I leave it alone. But, this half of the rhyme is certainly easier to remember than the full thing!
Is The Rhyme Just for Coral Snakes?
This rhyme only applies to coral and kingsnakes! Many other wild snakes have different patterns and colors touching. You can’t say that all snakes that have red and yellow touching are dangerous. And, you definitely can’t say that all snakes with black and red touching are not dangerous!
What Is The Takeaway?
If you aren’t a snake expert, the safest thing for you to do with wild snakes is to keep your distance from them. While there is no need to kill or harm a snake, you also shouldn’t be picking them up or playing with them. The coral snake rhyme is useful but has its limits, and can be misleading and confusing.
Remember, “red touches black, friend of Jack. Red touches yellow, kill a fellow. ”
Keep in mind that this saying is often but NOT always true. You won’t be bitten by a snake like this if you keep your distance. But, if you do suffer from a coral snake bite, make sure to get to a medical center ASAP.