The old saying goes: “Red on yella, kill a fella. Red on black, a friend of Jack.”

Another variant says: “Red against yellow, you’re a dead fellow. Red against black, you’re OK, Jack.”

Outdoors folks from Arizona to the Carolinas have long learned such poems to help distinguish the highly venomous coral snake from harmless look-alikes. But can this reptilian rhyme really prevent an early elegy?

What We Know
More than 50 species of coral snakes live in the Americas. Within the United States, three are most common: The Eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius), the Texas coral snake (Micrurus tener), and the Arizona or Sonoran coral snake (Micruroides euryxanthus).

You may well go a lifetime without ever seeing a coral snake. They are reclusive. That said, if you­­­ get too close to the Sonoran coral snake, you may find yourself downwind of a high-pitched burst of cloacal micro-farts. You read that right: these snakes suck air into their anus and emit it as a warning sound that sounds like popping. And make no mistake, if you push your luck with any coral snake, your wages may just be a lethal injection of neurotoxin.

Out of 9,000 reported snake bites in America each year, fewer than 50 come from coral snakes. Coral snakes are deadly, but there’s only been one reported death due to their bite in the last 40 years. Why? Because they’re not trying to get involved. A coral snake is like William Wallace in an early scene of “Braveheart,” he’s just farming—minding his business. But if you poke him enough times, its fiery fury. There’s a battle. Maybe you die. Maybe the snake dies. It’s bad news either way.

The problem is that when knuckleheads spot something interesting in the woods, they have to pick it up or poke it. Few things stand out more than a multi-colored snake.

If coral snakes were the only serpent that flashed red, yellow, and black rings, identification would be a cinch. But evolution has put similar paint jobs on the scarlet snake, milk snake, some king snakes, and other lookalikes. The mimicry deters predators. It also confuses dudes with half-knowledge and poking sticks.

The poem means to remind us that typically a coral snake has a red band against a yellow band where the posers usually have a red band touching a black band. This is true—until it isn’t. Why? Because, nature. Here’s how it all goes wrong. First, the poem is not accurate outside of the United States. Second, coral snakes are not plastic toys being pumped out on a conveyor belt, one exactly like the next. There is variation, aberration, regional differences, mutations, melanism, albinism, and other reasons why every American coral snake will not adhere to the poem or look like the one in the catalog.

So, if you see a multicolored snake, don’t use poetry as an excuse to push your luck. Leave the snakes alone. Or, if you must get close enough to try and identify a coral snake (which you shouldn’t) you can augment the poem by looking for other tells. For example, usually a coral snake’s broad black ring is bordered by a narrow yellow ring, which is followed by a broad red ring. A coral snake’s rings usually wrap completely around the body. But, in my experience, upside-down snakes are pissed off or dead snakes, so good luck with that one. Coral snakes’ snouts are usually black. And, they usually have nearly round pupils. Usually.

The Verdict
Will the coral snake poem help keep you alive? Most times. But, here’s the best way to avoid a coral snake bite: Don’t fool with snakes. If you think you see a coral snake, don’t poke it. Don’t pick it up. Don’t take a selfie with it. Don’t kill it. Just leave it be and chances are it’ll return the favor. If you get bit, like the old saw goes, “well, you knew it was a snake when you picked it up.”

Feature image via Bethany Harvey.