Venomous snakes are among the most feared creatures, often unjustly. They are actually fascinating animals that are often more afraid of people than they are of them. But they are also deadly, with some being more dangerous than others.
Today, we will discuss coral snakes and their most potent defensive and offensive weapon – their venom. How deadly are these animals, what venom type are they using, and can you survive their bite? Let’s have a look!
Anatomy and Behavior of Coral Snakes
Above all, coral snakes are gorgeous animals. They can reach up to 20 inches in length and are slender and colorful with an innocuous head appearance. Depending on the species, these snakes can be found in Asia and North America, with the North American ones being deemed as some of the deadliest in the world. They fall second right behind the black mamba thanks to their extremely potent venom.
The snake comes with a stripped pattern, combining black, yellow, and red bands spread across the entire body. The snake has several defensive mechanisms, one of which is its head shape. The head is no longer bulbous with protruding jaws and a specific shape. Instead, it is of the same width as the body, perfectly smooth and no distinct color or shape features.
The snake’s face is black, making it even more difficult to distinguish the mouth of eyes. This is an evolutionary advantage, causing predators to mistake the snake’s head for the tail. A trained eye can easily make the difference, given that the tail is drastically thinner.
Interestingly enough, other snake species have evolved to mimic the coral snake’s color pattern. That’s because most of the animal kingdom recognizes the coral snake as a genuine threat and they want nothing to do with it. This makes the coral snake as a great disguise suit for non-venomous species that can’t use venom to protect themselves.
Behavior of Coral Snakes
The snake is generally shy and prefers to keep a low profile, rather than use aggression. That being said, the snake will bite as a first instinct, which is when the problems begin. The bite itself isn’t the problem, due to the snake’s unique anatomy.
The main point of interest is the fangs, which don’t retract to the palate of the mouth. Instead, they are always erect, but also weak and rather short. They cannot usually pierce the human skin following a simply, reactive bite, so you shouldn’t even worry about them getting through clothing or leather boots. This is where the snake’s behavior comes it to make up for it.
Coral snakes compensate for their short and weak fangs with their biting behavior. The snake will bite and chew on the bite wound, inflicting multiple wounds and penetrating the skin. This can deliver sufficient venom for physiological symptoms to appear, which is when your problems begin.
So, let’s discuss that!
Chemical Composition of Coral Snake Venom
The venom is a neurotoxic agent containing several neurotoxic proteins like postsynaptic a-neurotoxin and presynaptic phospholipase A2. These components interact with neuromuscular activity, which, when combined with the venom’s ability to target the, diaphragm, results in respiratory failure and death.
Naturally, this isn’t the only effect to worry about. Phospholipase A2 also causes intravascular hemolysis and myotoxicity, among other effects. As a result, the victim will exhibit multiple symptoms, many of which are delayed.
Effects of Coral Snake Venom on Humans
Fortunately, despite the venom’s perceived potency, no coral snake-related deaths have been registered since 1960s. This is thanks to the effective antivenom and the fact that the venom itself has a delayed response. This gives you a window of 10-13 or even 24 hours to look for help.
The bite itself is very painful, but will deliver no other visible local symptoms, other than the mild localized discomfort following shortly. It’s the delayed effects that become more dangerous.
Human victims can experience slurred speech, blurred vision, loss of muscular control, difficulties breathing, and loss of consciousness. Death is possible or even likely, depending on the person’s age, its health status, the quantity of venom injected, and the bite’s location. The closer the bite is to your heart, the sooner the effects will appear and the more dangerous the consequences.
Immediate treatment is necessary following the bite, along with at least 24 hours supervision to make sure there are no delayed effects. The risk of anaphylactic shock is also worth mentioning in the case of hypersensitive individuals.
In short, seek help if you get bitten, even if the bite isn’t too painful and you experience no symptoms.
Treatment of Coral Snake Bites
The only recommended treatment is the administration of NACSA antivenom (North American Coral Snake Antivenin). The starting dose is 5 vials, but can increase to 15 vials, depending on the symptoms’ progression. Intubation may also be necessary depending on the severity of the symptoms and the patient’s response to the antivenom.
Full recovery is possible even in the absence of an antivenom, but the patient requires ventilation support for up to a week. Additionally, a tetanus shot is necessary to prevent the infection with Clostridium tetani. Fortunately, other bacterial infections are rare in case of coral snake bites, but not out of the question.
What Not to Do After Coral Snake Bite
In case you’ve been bitten by a coral snake, never:
- Slash the wound to ‘let the venom out’
- Suck the wound for the same purpose
- Try to capture the snake
- Apply a tourniquet to stop the blood flow from the affected region to the rest of the body
- Drink alcohol or caffeine
- Appy ice
One thing to remember is that, upon bite, the venom passes on in the blood stream almost immediately, before you get the chance to do anything. At this point, the only thing you can do is write down the time of the bite, identify the snake visually, so proper antivenom can be administered, and ask for professional help.
Don’t drive yourself to the hospital, because the neurotoxic venom can cause visual and muscular impairment which can become fatal when behind the wheel. Just relax, sit down, and make yourself comfortable until help arrives. This will decrease your blood flow and heart rate, delaying the venom’s activity and making recovery faster.
Prevention of Coral Snake Bites
The most obvious prevention method is avoiding the snake’s natural habitat altogether. If you can, simply don’t go where coral snakes live. If you do need to go, take some prevention measures. Some knee-high leather boots should be obligatory since coral snakes cannot jump to bite above the knee and their fangs cannot penetrate the boot.
If you observe a coral snake, keep your distance and go back or go around it. Do not disturb the animal and do not attempt to catch it. All these may seem like common sense tips, but, as you may know, common sense isn’t that common nowadays.
Coral snakes are amazing animals with an even more amazing defensive mechanism. However, those who fear snakes in general (especially venomous snakes) should understand that snakes don’t want to use their venom on humans. That’s because their venom is their primary hunting tool and a resource above all else. It takes time to refill the stocks, during which the animal cannot hunt.
So, they don’t want to bite and envenom us, but they will if they perceive us as threats, which they often do. Simply avoid them and seek medical attention if you couldn’t avoid the bite.