Forrest M. Mims III, The Country Scientist columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, produced a column about the Texas Coral Snake (Micrurus tener) in yesterday’s paper. Included was a double column-width photo of a coral snake taken by Mims as he encountered it on his driveway recently.
Inexplicably, the editor chose to present Mims’ excellent photograph in black and white, even though an earlier photo of a much drabber Texas Ratsnake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) was printed in full color. If there is any snake in the local area that deserves to be shown in full color it is certainly the coral, since the sequence of its colored rings is commonly used to distinguish it from several similarly patterned non-venomous species. Besides, the coral snake is a truly beautiful creature that seems to have been un-naturally painted with a highly polished lacquer to achieve its look. Ironically though, most herpetologists do not rely on the old rhyme “red touch black, venom lack; red touch yellow, kill a fellow,” since, to any one familiar with snakes, the coral snake does not remotely resemble any other local snake in body form and behavior.
Mims’ column also includes the following:
According to Dr. Robert Norris of the eMedicine Web site, around 20 people are bitten by coral snakes each year. Yet there have been no coral snake fatalities in the U.S. since antivenin was introduced. Before that, about 10 percent of victims died.
Unfortunately that statistic is no longer true. A highly publicized fatal bite occurred in Florida1 last year. Alcohol was involved, and apparently multiple bites were suffered by the victim, who had grabbed the snake and attempted to kill it. He evidently received no medical treatment prior to his death within a couple of hours of the bite.
Even more disconcerting to those who live within the range of the coral snake is the fact that Wyeth Labs, which produced the antivenin, no longer manufactures it. Although there are several Latin American labs that produce effective antisera against coral snake venom, FDA red tape makes their importation somewhat less than routine. Thus most American hospitals and poison control centers are currently relying upon remainders of the discontinued Wyeth stocks for the treatment of bites by coral snakes. It seems likely that in the near future medical providers will find themselves without a readily available domestic antivenin for coral snake bite.
1Technically, herpetologists are divided as to whether the Eastern Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius/M. f. fulvius) and the Texas Coral Snake (Micrurus tener/M. f. tener) belong to the same species. The two are virtually indistinguishable physically. Fortunately, medical treatment for the bite of either is exactly the same.