Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Coosa Coral

Eastern Coral Snake, Coosa County, Alabama. 20 April 2009. Photo by M. Bailey

UPDATE, June 29: Thanks to Thomas Spencer for featuring this story in the Birmingham News today. One minor correction is in order: the article leaves the impression that this is the first coral snake in Alabama in over 40 years, which isn't the case. They are still seen very infrequently in some parts of southern Alabama--the special significance of this find was the fact that the snake was found in a part of the state where they have not been seen in a very long time and were thought possibly extirpated.

The eastern or—as some now insist on calling it—“harlequin” coral snake, Micrurus fulvius, is among the most beautiful and least frequently encountered snakes in Alabama. (And deadliest, I suppose I should add.) I have found only one in the wild, in Florida, near the margin of a flatwoods pond. A few years earlier a coral snake was found by some Auburn herpetology students on a field trip I led at Eglin Air Force Base. Dave Steen tells me he found a road-killed one down at Eglin just this past weekend. Before Monday, I would tell you that if I were ever to see a coral snake in Alabama I would expect it to be somewhere near my home in south Alabama where there are a few historic occurrences. I tend to think of coral snakes as a Coastal Plain species, and I have long wondered about those very few reports (one each) from three counties above the Fall Line: Coosa, Bibb, and Talladega. Those reports are now over 40 years old, and there are two “coral snake mimics” out there that are commoner and often cause confusion resulting in erroneous reports. The one specimen in the Auburn University Vertebrate Museum that is attributed to Coosa County bears no specific locality data, and is therefore questionable. So, I suppose I have been something of an agnostic regarding the existence of coral snakes anywhere in Alabama north of the Black Belt. Until Monday.

I was driving from Andalusia to Shorter to meet Eric Soehren, with whom I’m co-editing a book on natural communities of Alabama. Later we were to drive to Auburn to meet with Debbie Folkerts, our other co-editor. I was still a few miles south of Montgomery when Eric called with the big news that Nick Sharp and Josh Landrum (his co-workers at ADCNR State Lands Division) had just gotten a CORAL SNAKE at one of the red-cockaded woodpecker sites that was recently acquired by Forever Wild. I was very familiar with this area of natural longleaf pine north of the Hatchet Creek arm of Mitchell Lake about an hour north of Montgomery, having monitored that woodpecker population for several years before the state acquired it. I’d seen a pigmy rattlesnake and an eastern coachwhip in that area before, and while coral snakes had crossed my mind, one had never crossed my trail the way Nick’s did. It happened fairly early in the morning, which is when Dr. Bob Mount says most Alabama specimens have been encountered. Nick gingerly scooped it into his backpack and called Eric, who was taking the day off to work on the book. Eric and I had nowhere to be until 4:00, so we decided to chuck the book for a while and run up to see and photograph the snake, so we planned to meet in Montgomery to ride together. Then I got the idea that we really ought to get a tissue sample for future DNA study, since we’d be releasing the snake rather than collecting it as a voucher. I called Jimmy Stiles, who had more experience than me in collecting snake tissue, and he advised a small clip off the tail tip. But what to preserve the tissue in? Eric and I ended up meeting at an ABC store and buying a small bottle of Bacardi 151 (75 % alcohol) rum, which had enough ethanol in it to do the trick.

We finally got to the scene and saw the snake, and after much back-slapping and picture taking, we realized what a deadly combination we had: a coral snake, a bottle of rum, and Josh’s pistol (he’s an enforcement officer). We decided we’d best be extra careful before clipping that tail (Nick had that honor). It was a great April day for all of us, especially Nick. And now whenever anybody questions whether coral snakes can be found in Alabama’s Piedmont or Ridge and Valley, I know what I’ll tell them. And I’m going to start looking harder for them myself.

ADDENDUM (4/22): This morning I shared a few images of this snake and its habitat with a group of conservationists in Montgomery, and Chris Oberholster (director, TNC of Alabama) told me how this sort of find was not that unusual when a large block of natural habitat is preserved. Sometimes it takes years for the cryptic and/or secretive rare species harbored by a tract of land to be revealed, and it doesn't always make sense to insist that "something rare" be known to justify a conservation acquisition. Protect the big, healthy tracts and you can fill in the rare species later as they turn up. Kudos to Forever Wild for preserving this 9,746 acre priceless piece of Coosa County.


David Steen said...

Nice find and a great picture. Way to improvise on the ethanol storage.

Nick said...

Enjoyed the write-up. So glad we could all share that moment together!

Glynn Wilson said...

Very interesting...

You made The Locust Fork News-Journal

JL Strickland said...

I killed what I assumed was a coral snake in the Huguley community back in the Fifties.

Huguley is in Chambers County, Alabama, right on the Georgia State line. It is about 70 miles up I-85 above Montgomery.

I had been active in Scouting and was interested in snakes, but had never seen a live coral snake. However I recogized those "red and yellow, kill a fellow" bands.

The snake was inside the wooden housing for a hand-dug well at my parents' house. Some well cleaners were about to clean the well and discovered the snake when the rope guy was being lowered down into the well.

He knocked the snake off into the bucket and they pulled it up and dumped it out on the ground.

It matched the photo in my snake book. The well cleaners didn't know what it was. They thought it was a small red king snake.

It may have been one of those mentioned "mimics," but it looked like the snake in the book.

Because I had a little brother and younger cousins who played in this area, I sent the snake to glory. I didn't want to chance anyone being bitten.

So, I'm claiming I saw a coral snake in my youth. I haven't seen a hoop snake yet, but I'm still looking.

Should I happen up on a hoop snake, you will be the first to know.

Dixieflash said...

Mark, I'm just glad we didn't run into one of those while stomping around in Blackwell Swamp the other day. If you recall, that's two of the four kinds of snakes I'm scared of - Little and Live!

Enjoyed working with you.

Regards, Warren Jones

Anonymous said...

I was going down to Bibb Co. to put out some tin today, to look for one there since I have a spot near West Blocton where I've been collecting fossils for 3 weeks,
(I found remains of an ankylosaur, triceratops, and a mosasaur) that has giant palmetto plants growing everywhere, and when I stopped to pick up some tin from an abandoned mobile home, I discovered a HEEE-YUUUGE black kingsnake! And, I just found a female on the road last week- But I'd really be elated if I could come up with a coral snake! Please comment about it, if you have any tips :)

Mark in LA said...

Good story Mark. I'll keep an eye out for coral snakes in my journeys around the state.

Anonymous said...

Today, I went back to a spot in Bibb Co. where I placed out some
tin. I haven't had any luck with coral snakes yet, but my efforts to discover secretive species somewhat paid off when I came upon
a scarlet snake there, which unfortunately had perished in an ant bed. In Robert Mount's "Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama" he writes that often, gopher tortoise
hatchlings suffer from attacks by fire ants, and it looks like that isn't the only species of reptile
that falls prey to them. The habitat where I found the scarlet snake was much similar to where the coral snake was in Coosa County- there are many hills surrounding a river, where rock outcrops are surrounded by cedar as well as pine trees (and even palmettos- not the 'agave' plants that are common but real palmettos!) it was a real tell-tale
discovery, and although it wasn't a live scarlet snake, it still demonstrates how plentiful species
that aren't typically seen are present in places where the habitat supports them. thanks for posting my previous entry also- hopefully more 'live' snakes will
be discovered this summer by 'ophiophiles' like myself!

billco said...

Found your site through the Birmingham News story. Good reading. I spend a lot of time in the woods in western Jefferson County. Not impossible to see a coral snake here, I suppose.

sleazel said...

Sleazeweazel here congratulating you from Coral snake central, otherwise known as Wacahoota, Florida, just south of Gainesville, though I haven't seen one recently.

I have seen many coral snakes here in my old growth forest and elsewhere. As Mount observed they are diurnal. I have never seen one at night. They are also quite bold as they have every right to be!

It is surprising to me that they have somehow gotten through the "fire ant bottleneck" that completely eradicated most herps from around here in the 70's.

There are still fair numbers of ringnecks and Scincella skinks why may help to explain it.

I'm running a homeless shelter for snakes here, and a neighbor recently brought me a nice one. A couple of years ago we released a snahill monster that was almost four feet long and had a huge swollen head just full of venom. Don't let anyone try to tell you they are harmless or have to bite between one's fingers. About half are fairly docile and the other half will send you straight to hell!

AKA: Bruce J. Morgan
Environmental Designs
POB 1519
Archer, FL 32618 USA
352 495 9748

Rick D said...

From Rick in Prattville.
I own 14 acres on Hatchet creek not far from that area. I have some tin out but so far I've just found scorpions, a Rough earth snake and a Ring-neck snake. I've found two live Coral snakes in Apalachiola NF in FL. The first one was crossing a forest road about 8:15 am in a light rain. The 2nd one was starting to cross a paved road at dusk.
We found a DOR this year that was run over in the early evening so they don't always move around in the morning.
Great Find!

FranQ. said...

In the summer of 2007, I was walking my dogs in a Birmingham suburb and saw a snake that was red, black and yellow striped. The red and yellow bands touched each other. I got a good look at the snake and the black and red bands did not touch. I was not able to get a picture of the snake but I have wondered for two years if it really was a coral snake. Are there other snakes in Alabama with red and yellow stripes that touch? Thanks -

Mark Bailey said...


If it's a banded snake with red and yellow touching, and it's in Alabama, it pretty much has to be a coral snake. Seems unlikely to be in suburbs around Birmingham, but I've been surprised before. Go to Google images and look at "Scarlet kingsnake" and "scarlet snake" just to be sure it wasn't one of these others. Next time get a photo--that would be a really neat discovery.