Coral Snake vs Milk Snake

Coral Snake vs Milk Snake: A Guide To Quickly Tell them Apart

There are certain species of coral snakes in North and South America that look quite like the red, white and black banded milk snakes. From a distance, and by an inexperienced eye, it is impossible to tell the difference. It is crucial to know the difference between coral snake vs milk snake, because one of them is venomous! What if one shows up in your backyard?

This article talks about certain species of coral snakes that resemble milk snakes closely, and also discusses the ones that do not look like milk snakes at all. Without further ado, let’s first take a look at each one of them separately, and then explore the similarities and differences between them so that we do not fall in trouble when we finally encounter one!

A Look Into The Mysterious Lives Of Coral Snakes…

Mysterious Lives Of Coral Snakes

Source: @plowzi.t

Coral snakes belong to the order Squamata and family Elapidae. They form a large group of venomous snakes that can be further divided into two groups– the New World coral snakes and the Old World coral snakes. There are 16 species in the Old World category, while on the other hand, the New World category consists of 65 species, all scattered around the temperate parts of the United States, especially in North Carolina, Louisiana and Florida.

Coral snakes are highly venomous and have long been considered to be one of the most dangerous snakes in N. America. Thankfully, not many bite-cases have been reported so far, and their fangs are quite short thus cannot penetrate thick garments if worn by the victim. They are mostly elusive in nature and keep hiding in the ground or within leaf mounds.

And A Glimpse Into The Secret Lives Of Milk Snakes!

Secret Lives Of Milk Snakes

Source: @ryan.sikola

Let’s shed some light on milk snakes now. Milk snakes are actually a variety of king snakes that belong to the same order as coral snakes, but the family is different. Milk snakes belong to the large group of Colubridae serpents. They have 24 subspecies as of date and can be mostly found in the south-eastern extremes of Ontario, and states like Florida and Alabama. They are also found in the valleys of the Mississippi River and the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Forested regions and open woodlands are largely frequented by milk snakes. They have beautiful colors across the range of subspecies varying mainly between red and orange, and sometimes deep brown, with gorgeous and distinctive banded patterns. Insects, worms and slugs of all sorts make up the appetite of milk snakes.

In case you are wondering, they are called “milk” snakes because they visit barns and people believe they suckle on cow milk. Of course it is erroneous, but quite amusing at the same time.

Coral Snake vs Milk Snake: Why Are They Difficult To Distinguish?

Some species of coral snakes, like the Eastern coral snakes and the Indian Bibron’s coral snakes, look very similar to milk snakes. The bands on the body have the same color variations, red, yellow and black, with or without some other colors present. In these cases, it becomes quite difficult to tell coral snakes apart from milk snakes.

Not only that but both the snakes have similar nature– they both are elusive and shy, and love to hide under rocks, tree logs and mounds of dried up leaves. Also, both prefer to bask in the sun during the daytime, and become active at night. Both coral snakes and milk snakes are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs that hatch after they are laid.

Diet of milk snakes and coral snakes are quite similar– they both enjoy hunting down rodents, lizards, birds, their eggs, and other small amphibians and reptiles. Since there are so many similarities, knowing their differences becomes crucial especially when you are thinking of keeping one as a pet, or if you locate one in your backyard.

Coral Snake vs Milk Snake: Zooming In On The Differences

Now that we have seen the similarities, let’s explore the differences elaborately. Pay close attention to the second difference in particular!

Family Differences

Coral snakes are Elapids, whereas milk snakes are Colubrids. 

Coral snakes belong to the enormous super-family of snakes called the Elapoidae, consisting of about 300 venomous snakes under their umbrella. As discussed before, the elapid snake family is so large that it has been categorized into 2 parts– the Old World and the New World. In the Old World there are 16 species, and in the New World there are 65 species further broken down into two separate genera– Micruroides and Micrurus.

On the other hand, milk snakes belong to a completely different family of snakes known as the Colubridae, and in short they are called colubrids. There are more than 24 species of kingsnakes in the colubrid family, with more than 20 subspecies of milk snakes alone.

Colubridae is an equally big family like the Elapidae, however the number of coral snake species are way more than milk snake species and subspecies.

Color And Pattern

The banding pattern in coral snakes is slightly different than in milk snakes. Also, certain foreign species (outside of America) of coral snakes look nothing like milk snakes. 


Milk Snake Color And Pattern

Source: @popmilk_herping

Milk Snake: Let’s get acquainted with milk snakes first. They have mainly three colors on their body in the form of rings or bands– red, white and black. The red bands are outlined in black, the red and yellow rings do not touch. This is because there is a black ring between red and yellow rings. Also, the red bands are much wider than the yellow and black bands.

Almost all subspecies of milk snakes have red, white and black bands. The red band’s shade may vary across different subspecies, like it could be brighter in some while duller in others, but essentially the same.

There is a popular mnemonic “Red touch yellow kill a fellow, red touch black friend of Jack” that actually works well in distinguishing milk snakes from coral snakes. “Red touch black friend of Jack” part applies for milk snakes in the sense that the red bands always touch the black bands in milk snakes. The case of coral snakes will be clarified a bit later.

Coral Snake Color And Pattern

Source: @greatwhiterattlesnake

Coral Snake: Now let’s talk about coral snakes. There are certain coral snakes that look quite similar to milk snakes, and distinguishing them becomes quite difficult.

A lot of New World coral snakes of the Micrurus and Micruroides genera resemble milk snakes and most of them reside in North and South America. Some Old World species look like milk snakes too, and their examples are also listed in the table below.

Snake Common Name Snake Scientific Name How They Look Like Where They Live
Arizona coral snake (New World) Micruroides euryxanthus black, white and red rings Arizona
Allen’s coral snake

(New World)

Micrurus alleni black, white and red rings Costa Rica
Brazilian Coral Snake

(New World)

Micrurus altirostris black, white and red rings Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil
Black headed coral snakes

(New World)

Micrurus averyi black, white and red rings Central and South America
Bibron’s coral snake

(Old World)

Calliophis bibroni red body with black rings India
Black coral snake

(Old World)

Calliophis nigrescens red body with black longitudinal stripes India

So, how does one differentiate these similar looking coral snakes from milk snakes? The difference lies in the banding patterns. In coral snakes, the black bands are outlined in yellow, and the red and yellow bands do touch each other. There is no intermediary black band between the red and yellow bands, as there is in case of milk snakes.

Another difference is that, in coral snakes, the black and red bands are much wider than the yellow bands. Therefore, the first part of the mnemonic, “Red touch yellow kill a fellow” does apply to coral snakes in the sense that their red bands do touch the yellow bands, and they kill because they are venomous. However, the mnemonic does not work in all cases.

Do all coral snakes look like milk snakes? No, in fact, most of the Old World coral snakes of the genera Calliophis, Hemibungarus, and Sinomicrurus do not look like milk snakes at all, and most of them are from South-East Asia. Let’s take a look at which coral snakes do not look like milk snakes at all via the table below.

Snake Common Name Snake Scientific Name How They Look Like Where They Live
Beddome’s coral snake Caliophis beddomei completely gray body India
Blue Malaysian coral snake Caliophis bivirgatus red face, blue body Malaysia
Spotted coral snake Caliophis gracilis white body, black stripes Thailand
Barred coral snakes Hemibungarus calligaster black body with white stripes Philippines
Macclelland’s coral snakes Sinomicrurus macclellandi brown body overall SE Asia

Hunting Style

Coral snakes are venomous whereas milk snakes are non-venomous. 

Coral snakes are venomous and have two short fangs in their mouth with the help of which they inject small quantities of neurotoxins into the tissues of their prey. The fangs are hollow and are located at the front of their mouth. The fangs have small grooves through which the venom is channeled because they are not directly connected to the venom duct.

The snakes use venom to subdue their prey before swallowing them. As the venom quantity is low with every bite, therefore the snake needs to stay in a biting position for a long time. In humans, vomiting and muscle twitching may occur after the bite. In certain cases, though rare, fatalities have been reported.

Milk snakes, on the other hand, are non-venomous and do not possess fangs. Instead they have small, needle-shaped aglyphous teeth, two on the lower jaw and four on the upper jaw. The teeth are mainly used to grasp the prey. They subdue their prey by constriction.

Coral Snake is Shorter than Milk Snake And Black Head Color

Source: @wakefieldwildlife

Head And Size

Milk snakes are longer than coral snakes. Coral snakes have completely black heads, whereas milk snakes have colors in their snout region. However, variations may occur across species and subspecies. 

Coral snakes could grow anywhere between 18 and 30 inches, whereas milk snakes between 14 and 72 inches! Also, coral snakes that look like milk snakes, have completely black heads and their heads are smaller. Milk snakes have colorful heads, on the other hand. Another thing to note is that Eastern milk snakes have a V-shape or Y-shaped patch on their necks which is not present in coral snakes.


The more you know about these two snakes, the better. Take a look at the FAQs below.

Q: Are the habitats of coral snake and milk snake different?

Ans: Some coral snakes live in the water while others do not. The ones that are aquatic or semi-aquatic may have flattened tails that are used as fins for swimming. Coral snakes are mainly found in the southern parts of the United States, where there are pine and scrub growths that undergo seasonal flooding. The Mexican species thrive in thorn scrub and desert scrub.

Milk snakes are usually found in the south-eastern parts of the United States. They can be spotted at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and all of Mexico. They thrive in forested regions and open woodlands mainly, but can also be found in swamps, rocky slopes, and sand dunes. They hibernate between October and April or migrate to warmer regions.

Q: What is the main difference between coral snake and milk snake?

Ans: Remember the mnemonic “Red touch yellow kill a fellow, red touch black friend of Jack”. If the red band touches the yellow band, it is a coral snake. If the red band touches the black band, it is a milk snake. It may not always work, but it is worth a try. Also, milk snakes grow much longer than coral snakes.

Q: Can milk snake and coral snake be kept as pets?

Ans: Milk snakes can definitely make great pets, but coral snakes are not recommended since they are venomous. Unless you are an expert snake handler or an experienced zoo keeper, it would be better if you do not bring a coral snake into your household.


Coral snake vs milk snake– how do you tell them apart? Some New World species of coral snakes are banded with the same colors as milk snakes, and most of them can be seen wriggling around within the foliage of American forests and swamps. Asian Old World coral snakes, however, look very different from milk snakes.

Pay close attention to the way the bands on their body have touched each other. Directing your attention to their body length may also help. If a red-white-black banded snake hisses at you and bares its fangs, it is most definitely a coral snake! The best thing to do is to observe the snake from a distance until you are completely sure, or take help from an experienced handler.

Hi dear readers! This is Rebecca, the lead analyst and blog writer for Snake Insider. Following in the footsteps of David’s guided path, I feel highly encouraged to make the most interesting snake-facts to a mass audience! In due time, I believe we’ll be able to present some jaw-dropping insight on snakes that’s sure to leave you begging for more! Personally, I’m a strongly motivated person to explore the most extreme environments should my work demand it. In many cases, I’ve ventured deep into territories that were never considered certain snake habitats and brought back necessary information. Rest assured I’ll surely be sharing them with you over the course of time.

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