In the world of reptiles, snakes often evoke a sense of curiosity and, at times, apprehension. Amidst the multitude of snake species, there exist some that bear a striking resemblance to each other, which can bewilder those attempting to distinguish them. In this blog, we’ll delve into the subtle yet crucial disparities between three closely related colubrid snakes: the Coral Snake, the Scarlet King Snake (or Milk Snake), and the Scarlet Snake. While these three species may appear remarkably similar at first glance, an in-depth look reveals their unique characteristics. Moreover, we’ll introduce the remarkable Milk Snake, a diverse species with an impressive geographic range and a presence in our region.

One of our gardeners recently found these two scarlet snakes. Unfortunately they were already dead. Not the color pattern. Also note the yellowish white belly without banding. Credit: Dr. Tim Davis, Director CGBG
  1. The Coral Snake (Micrurus spp.)

Coral snakes, members of the Micrurus genus, are renowned for their vibrant, distinct coloration. They belong to the venomous family Elapidae, which includes formidable species such as cobras and sea snakes. To differentiate the Coral Snake from its non-venomous mimics, we often rely on the familiar rhyme: “Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, venom lack.”

Key Characteristics:

  • Slender, elongated body adorned with colorful bands.
  • Bands are typically arranged in the sequence of black, yellow (or white), and red.
  • Possesses venomous fangs located at the front of the mouth.
  • Displays solitary and reclusive behavior, making sightings rare.
  1. The Scarlet King Snake (Lampropeltis elapsoides) or Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum)

Scarlet King Snakes and Milk Snakes, collectively known as “tricolored snakes,” share striking color patterns. Both belong to the genus Lampropeltis and are non-venomous. While Scarlet King Snakes primarily inhabit the southeastern United States, Milk Snakes boast one of the most extensive ranges of any snake species globally, spanning from Canada through the Midwest and eastern U.S. to Mexico and south into Ecuador.

Key Characteristics:

  • Tri-color banding, often in the order of black, yellow, and red.
  • Displays bold and easily distinguishable coloration.
  • Non-venomous and are constrictors that predominantly feed on rodents.
  • Known for their docile nature and are commonly kept as pets.
  • Comprised of 25 subspecies, each with slight variations in color.
  1. The Scarlet Snake (Cemophora coccinea)

The Scarlet Snake frequently confounds observers due to its remarkable resemblance to both the Coral Snake and the Scarlet King Snake/Milk Snake. However, it belongs to the Cemophora genus and is non-venomous. Scarlet Snakes are relatively small and tend to keep to themselves, which makes them less commonly seen.

Key Characteristics:

  • Tri-color banding resembling the Coral Snake and the Scarlet King Snake/Milk Snake.
  • Bands typically arranged as black, yellow, and red.
  • Possesses a rounded head without venomous fangs.
  • Prefers a diet consisting of small reptiles, amphibians, and insects.
  • Found across various habitats, including woodlands and sandy areas.

Distinguishing the Trio with a Milk Snake Twist

To further enhance our understanding of these fascinating snakes, let’s incorporate the information about Milk Snakes:

Milk Snakes are renowned for their remarkable range, comprising 25 subspecies that stretch from Canada through the Midwest and eastern U.S. to Mexico and south into Ecuador. Within our region, two subspecies are notable: the Eastern Milk Snake (L. t. triangulum) and the Scarlet Kingsnake (L. t. elapsoides). The latter is prevalent throughout Georgia, particularly in the Coastal Plain, while it’s less common in the Piedmont or mountainous areas. Eastern Milk Snakes and intergrades between the two are confined to the mountains of northern Georgia and northwestern South Carolina.

Key Characteristics of Milk Snakes:

  • A part of the Lampropeltis genus and non-venomous.
  • Display tri-color banding akin to the Scarlet King Snake and the Scarlet Snake.
  • Versatile in habitat choice, inhabiting fields, woodlands, rocky outcrops, and agricultural areas.


Discerning the Coral Snake, Scarlet King Snake, and Scarlet Snake requires a discerning eye for color patterns, coupled with an understanding of their habitats and behavior. While their tri-color banding may initially sow confusion, paying close attention to the order of these bands and the presence or absence of venomous fangs will set you on the right path to identification. Always exercise caution when encountering any snake, emphasizing safety and the preservation of these remarkable creatures within our ecosystems. And now, armed with this knowledge, you can also appreciate the remarkable geographic range and diversity of the Milk Snake in our midst.