May 27, 2019

How Does That Rhyme Go Again?

Posted by: Nate Ramey

How Does That Rhyme Go Again?

       While most folks would be horrified with the prospect of finding a red, yellow, and black snake in their garden, the naturalists at Little Saint Simons Island were overjoyed when the Island’s horticulturist, Séamus, found the specimen pictured above. At first glance, many would think this small reptile is the venomous coral snake. However, with closer examination one could realize that this subtle serpent is nothing more than the harmless scarlet snake, Cemorpha coccinea.

       The scarlet snake is a small, nocturnal, burrowing snake that rarely exceeds 20 inches in length. It has a specialized diet, feeding primarily on the eggs of other reptiles. Smaller eggs tend to be swallowed whole, while larger eggs are slit open with enlarged teeth, allowing the snake to infiltrate the egg and lap up the yolk to its delight. It spends most of its time buried beneath leaf litter, usually only appearing above ground in the middle of the night. Though its population is not threatened it is still a rare sight due to its secretive nature. Most of the time it is found by gardeners moving stones or logs in their gardens.

       Unfortunately, this harmless critter is often killed due to confusion with the highly venomous eastern coral snake, Micrurus fulvius. This is mainly due to the red, yellow, and black banding seen in both species. Throughout the years many have tried to mitigate this confusion by coming up with helpful sayings and rhymes for people to learn the difference between venomous and non-venomous red, yellow, and black snakes in the United States. “Red touches black venom lack, red touches yellow is a deadly fellow” or “Red touches black is a friend of jack; red touches yellow will kill a fellow” are two of the most common phrases that people know. But just like in a game of telephone, these phrases are repeated to others and inevitably the wrong thing is said/heard. Then you end up with something like “Red touches black is deadly Jack; red touches yellow is a friendly fellow” which of course will lead you to a possibly deadly mis-identification.

Naturalists tend to shy away from using these phrases and other quick ID methods when talking about dangerous snakes. A lot of the “quick” ID features such as head and eye shape as well as coloration require the person to get far too close to a potentially dangerous animal. The advice given nowadays tends to be “If you don’t recognize a snake leave it alone.” Best to simply get a photo if possible and contact a local expert/naturalist. Sound advice for a potentially dangerous situation.

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