The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Monday, August 26, 2002

Mambas And Corals
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, August , 2002, © 2004

Have you ever done the two-step mamba? Probably not, because it's not a dance but an extremely dangerous African snake. The term comes from the notion that you only have two steps to live after being bitten.

A friend on an African safari was curious about the myth and asked his guide, "What would I do if I were bitten by a mamba?" The renowned white hunter replied, "Start signing your traveler's checks." Actually, two steps is quite an exaggeration, but you really have a 100% chance of dying in ten minutes without medical attention. Don't you feel better?

The four-foot long Black Mamba of central and southern Africa is indeed that continent's deadliest snake, loaded for game with a powerful neurotoxin which attacks your nervous system causing breakdowns in respiratory, cardiac and muscle functions. In addition, it is not comforting to know that this reptile is perhaps the fastest snake in the world, capable of tearing over rough terrain, holding its head high off the ground and striking at its favorite food, usually small creatures such as other snakes, rodents and birds. The mamba can hunt from a tree perch, too, but it is not a true tree snake.

Everything has its predators, and so does this snake: The Secretary Bird is one, so-named for the feathers sticking out of its crown (Do secretaries still stick pencils in their coiffures?). It roams the veldt with its long legs ready to stomp snakes to death; the mongoose, a champion herp-killer, can also fearlessly take on the mamba.

We have a relative of the mamba here in the Rio Grande Valley, a lethal beauty called the Texas Coral Snake. Although it belongs to the same Elapidae family, which includes the kraits and the cobras, it is a very different animal! You would be lucky to see one. Many of our Valley naturalists have never found one in the wild. You might have to check the fabulous reptile house at the Gladys Porter Zoo.

The coral only averages a bit over two feet long and prefers to burrow into the earth and hide in crevices. When alarmed, it buries its head, shakes its tail and pops its vent!

There is no problem spotting one in the open, however. Spectacular bands of scarlet, yellow and black are features which lead to the cautionary rhyme, "Red and yellow kill a fellow." This helps to distinguish between the coral and the Scarlet Kingsnake, whose red and black bands are adjacent: "Red and black, venom lack."

Even though its venom is twice as deadly as that of the rattlesnake, fatal bites on humans are rare. Most attacks occur when children are attracted to the bright colors and try to handle the snake. Toes and fingers are then targeted. There is a misconception that its small mouth and fangs make it necessary for the coral to part with its venom by chewing, but in reality it can strike rapidly and often. A photographer friend was hammered on his gloved hand three times in the blink of an eye. By the way, you have more than two steps to seek medical help. It used to be called the "twenty-minute" snake. However, twenty-four hours might be your window, depending on how much of a payload is delivered. With that much time you could write your will, call friends, arrange your funeral and do a crossword puzzle. Another thing about the bite is that the pain and swelling can be deceptively mild when compared with other poisons.

One place where you might see this snake is Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. It has even been discovered near the visitor's center, and one was unfortunately, and we hope unintentionally, crunched in the automatic door several years ago.

Here is a South Texas legend: An illegal alien traveling through the Falfurrias brushland was bitten by a coral and angrily bit off its head! With his teeth, he stripped the snake's skin and wrapped it around his upper arm as a tourniquet. He struggled to the highway, flagged down a Border Patrol vehicle and was taken to the hospital. His recovery enabled him to be returned to Mexico.

Like most animals, all that these beauties desire is to be left alone. Appreciate but don't approach. That is a good maxim when dealing with many things in the natural world.

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