False Coral Snake: Aniliidae

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The false coral snake, the only species in this family, is a brightly colored, orange, red, or pinkish snake with fifty to sixty black bands. Each of the bands is two, three, or four scales wide. In some members of this species, the black bands are incomplete. In other words, they only reach partway up the sides of the snake and do not meet at the top of the back. Sometimes, the individual orange, red, or pinkish scales are outlined in black, making the snake look slightly speckled. Its belly is all red, orange, or pinkish, with no black banding. All scales on its body are shiny and smooth, which means they have no ridges, or keels. This nonvenomous (nahn-VEH-nuh-mus) snake looks somewhat similar to the venomous, or poisonous, coral snake species that shares its habitat and is therefore known as a "false" coral snake. Both false coral snakes and coral snakes, which are in the family Colubridae, are red, orange, or pink with evenly spaced black bands.

The body of a false coral snake is about the same thickness from one end to the other, giving the snake an overall tube shape. Both the head and tail are short. In snakes, the tail begins at the vent, which is a slitlike opening on the underside of the snake. This tube-shaped body is very similar to that of the pipe snakes of family Cylindrophiidae, and the false coral snakes are sometimes called red pipe snakes. At one time, in fact, the two families were combined into just one family. The only slight change in the body thickness of the false coral snake is in its head, which flattens out a bit. The head, which is made of very thick bones, has two small eyes covered by scales, and the large jaws have cone-shaped teeth that are very slightly curved. The snakes also have spurs, which are tiny, barely noticeable bits of bone that stick out near the vent. The snakes reach about 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to 1 meters) in length.

Within this species of false coral snake, scientists have named two subspecies, or races. A species has a two-part name, and the false coral snake is named Anilius scytale. When scientists name subspecies, they add a third name to the end of the scientific name. In the case of the false coral snakes, the two subspecies have slightly different scale patterns. Anilius scytale scytale, abbreviated to A. s. scytale, has more than 225 ventrals, which are the scales on its underside, and A. s. phelpsorum has fewer than 225. The belly scales in snakes are generally wider than the rest of the scales on the snake's sides and back. A. s. scytale also has black bands that are shorter than the red bands, while A. s. phelpsorum has black bands that are longer than the red bands. In addition, the two subspecies usually live in different areas, with A. s. phelpsorum living farther north than A. s. scytale. In some areas, such as northern Brazil and French Guiana, some individuals look a little bit like both subspecies, which means that their two parents may be from two different subspecies.


False coral snakes live in eastern Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, French Guiana, southwestern Venezuela, Suriname, and Guyana, especially in the Amazon and Orinoco Basins, which are the areas surrounding the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers of South America.


Some snakes, including false coral snakes, have spurs. These are tiny bits of bone that barely jut out near the vent, which is the slitlike opening on the underside of a snake. The spur is actually part of leftover hip and sometimes upper leg bones, carried down through the years from the long-ago ancestors of snakes, which had working hips and legs. The legs gradually disappeared, and in most snakes, the hips vanished, too. In the false coral snakes, however, the spurs are a reminder of past life on Earth.


This snake spends much of its time in burrows in loose soil. It lives in rainforests, especially in low-lying areas near streams or other waterways.


False coral snakes eat long and narrow vertebrates (VER-teh-brehts), which are animals with backbones. These include small snakes, eels, caecilians, and amphisbaenians. Caecilians (seh-SEE-lee-ens) are salamanderlike animals that live underground. Amphisbaenians (am-fizz-BANE-ee-ens) are smallheaded, short-tailed lizards that also make their homes below ground.


This nonpoisonous snake is a burrower and usually stays underground during the daytime. When it is above ground and feels threatened, it will curl up its tail to show off its bright underside. The snake appears to be an ovoviviparous (oh-vo-vie-VIH-puh-rus) species, which means that the female produces eggs, but they hatch inside her, and she actually gives birth to baby snakes. Females have up to fifteen young at a time. Like many other snakes that stay buried under the ground much of the time, false coral snakes have been studied very little by scientists. Further information about their behavior and reproduction remains a mystery.


People and false coral snakes rarely see one another.


The World Conservation Union (IUCN) considers the false coral snake to be Data Deficient, which means that scientists as yet have too little information to make a judgment about the threat of extinction. Destruction and other changes to their habitat, however, are probably threatening at least some populations.



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Web sites

"Family Aniliidae." EMBL (European Molecular Biology Laboratory) Reptile Database. http://www.embl-heidelberg.de/uetz/families/Aniliidae.html (accessed on September 28, 2004).

Lovera, A. "Anilius scytale (false coral snake, pipe snake, and red pipe snake)." Animal Diversity Web. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Anilius_scytale.html (accessed on February 2, 2005).

"Pipe Snake (Anilius scytale). Animal Planet.com. http://animal.discovery.com/fansites/jeffcorwin/carnival/slithering/pipesnake.html (accessed on February 2, 2005).