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What is the saying red on yellow?

What is the saying red on yellow?

The saying “red on yellow” refers to a rhyme used to remember the difference between venomous coral snakes and non-venomous king snakes in North America. The full rhyme goes “red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack”. This rhyme helps people quickly identify venomous coral snakes which have red, yellow, and black colored banding, as opposed to non-venomous king snakes which have similar color banding but in a different order. The saying warns that if the red and yellow rings touch, it is a coral snake and should be avoided.

Origin and Meaning

The origins of the “red on yellow” rhyme are unclear, but it has been used for decades as a helpful way to distinguish coral snakes from king snakes. Coral snakes are highly venomous members of the cobra family found in the southern United States and are considered one of the most deadly snakes in North America. King snakes are non-venomous constrictors that prey on other snakes, including venomous ones like rattlesnakes.

The saying refers to the specific banding patterns on these two types of snakes. Coral snakes have red bands touching yellow bands, while this order is reversed on king snakes which have red bands touching black bands instead. So “red on yellow” refers to the coral snake’s pattern, while “red on black” refers to the king snake’s pattern.

By rhyming these distinguishing features in a short phrase, people encountering these snakes can quickly determine if they are dealing with the dangerous coral snake by remembering “red on yellow, kill a fellow”. The word “fellow” in the rhyme simply means the snake itself. So the saying is essentially saying that if the snake has red bands touching yellow bands (red on yellow) then it is likely a coral snake and should be avoided or killed due to its highly venomous nature.

How the Saying is Used

The “red on yellow” rhyme is often taught to children and adults living in areas populated by both coral snakes and king snakes. This includes states like Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. It provides an easy to remember way to tell the difference at a glance, which is important as both types of snakes can look quite similar to an untrained eye.

Here are some examples of how the saying is used:

– A parent teaching their child: “Remember, if you see a snake with red touching yellow, use the rhyme ‘red on yellow, kill a fellow’ and stay away! It’s probably a coral snake.”

– A camp counselor instructing campers: “If you spot a red, yellow and black striped snake, check if the red and yellow bands are next to each other. If so, that snake is dangerous so remember ‘red on yellow can kill a fellow’.”

– A hiker shouting to a friend: “Don’t go any closer! That snake has red on yellow. Use the ‘red on yellow’ rule and let’s get away from it in case it’s a coral snake.”

– A zoo employee cautioning visitors: “These snakes look very similar but you can use the saying ‘red on yellow, kill a fellow’ to know if one is the venomous coral snake or the harmless king snake.”

So in summary, the rhyme is used as a tool to quickly identify potential coral snakes by remembering the key characteristic of red and yellow bands touching each other. This can help prevent deadly snake bites and poisonings, especially for people hiking, camping or living in areas where coral snakes are found.

Origin of the Coral Snake Rhyme

While the exact origin of the “red on yellow” coral snake rhyme is unknown, it has been passed down for many generations and spread by word of mouth. Some theories suggest it could date back to indigenous tribes or early American settlers who encountered these snakes and created the rhyme to differentiate the harmless from the deadly.

Other theories point to Boy Scout leaders in the 1930s who likely found it handy to teach scouts how to identify the dangerous coral snake during outings. The life-saving value of the rhyme led to it being included in Boy Scout manuals and spread through youth outdoor education across the country.

There are records of similar rhyming couplets being used in Mexican folklore to distinguish coral snakes going back to the 19th century or earlier. So the rhyme may have originated from Spanish-speaking regions of North America before becoming more widespread.

Regardless of its exact beginning, the coral snake rhyme has become an enduring folk rhyme passed on for generations and remains just as helpful today. Its simplicity, catchiness and potentially life-saving purpose continue to make “red on yellow” one of the most well-known snippets of snake bite advice.

Coral Snake Identification

Snake Type Banding Colors Venomous?
Coral snake Red bands touch yellow bands Yes
King snake Red bands touch black bands No

While the rhyme is a helpful start, it’s also important to learn more specific coral snake identification techniques. Some key facts about coral snakes include:

– Found in the southern and southeastern United States.

– Relatively small, averaging around 2-3 feet in length. Largest species is the eastern coral snake which reaches lengths just over 3 feet.

– Slender bodies with smooth, shiny scales.

– Distinct alternating black, yellow and red colored bands completely encircling body. Red bands always border yellow bands.

– Head is black with a yellow or white snout tip.

– Secretive snakes that spend majority of time buried underground or hiding under debris on forest floors. Mostly active at night or early morning.

– Neurotoxic venom that paralyzes nervous system and breathing. Antivenom is only effective treatment.

– Bite and envenomation is rare due to coral snake’s shy nature. But all bites should be treated as medical emergencies.

– When threatened, coral snakes may hide their brightly colored bodies and only expose their darker heads. Their defensive display is to curl up body and press their lighter banded snout down in attempt to mimic non-venomous snakes.

So while the “red on yellow” rhyme is useful for quick identification, learning additional details about coral snakes’ appearances, habitats and behaviors can further improve ability to distinguish them and react appropriately if encountered.

How Venomous Are Coral Snakes?

Coral snakes possess one of the most potent snake venoms in North America and can be highly dangerous, though fatalities are uncommon due to their reclusive nature. Here are some key facts about coral snake venom and bites:

– Their venom is a neurotoxin that paralyzes muscles, especially those involved in breathing. Respiratory failure is the primary cause of death in human coral snake envenomations.

– Venom is delivered through short, fixed hollow fangs at the front of the coral snake’s mouth. This means they must bite down and chew to inject venom deep into skin.

– Coral snake bites do not always result in envenomation. Between a quarter and a third are ‘dry bites’, meaning no venom injected.

– Coral snake antivenom exists and can be life-saving if administered promptly. Antivenom works by neutralizing venom already in the body.

Coral Snake Species Median Lethal Dose (LD50)*
Eastern coral snake 1.7 mg/kg**
Texas coral snake 1.4 mg/kg
Arizona coral snake 2.4 mg/kg

\*LD50 is the dose required to kill 50% of tested subjects

\*\*mg/kg refers to milligrams of venom per kilogram of body weight

– An average lethal dose for an adult can be as little as 3-4 mg of venom.

– With prompt medical treatment including antivenom, coral snake bites have approximately a 4% mortality rate.

So while coral snake venom is quite potent and can be lethal, deaths are rare due to the snakes’ shy nature, warning displays, and proportion of dry bites. But if bitten, immediate emergency medical care is vital for survival.

First Aid for Coral Snake Bites

If bitten by a coral snake, proper first aid can buy valuable time until antivenom treatment. Here are some dos and don’ts for responding to a coral snake bite:


– Call 911 or emergency services immediately. Antivenom and respiratory support will be required as soon as possible.

– Remain calm and restrict physical activity. This helps slow the spread of venom.

– Remove jewelry, watches, tight clothing from bitten area to prevent restricted blood flow.

– Clean bite wound gently with soap and water if possible.

– Splint or immobilize bitten limb to reduce movement.

– Monitor breathing carefully while waiting for emergency responders. Be prepared to perform CPR if breathing stops.


– Use ice or tourniquets which are ineffective and can worsen injury.

– Make any incisions at the bite site.

– Attempt to suck out venom by mouth.

– Capture or kill the snake, as this risks additional bites.

– Allow victim to walk or engage in physical activity.

Following these guidelines, remaining calm, and getting emergency medical care as fast as possible offer the best chances of surviving a coral snake envenomation. Prompt antivenom can make the difference between life and death.

Preventing Coral Snake Bites

The best way to avoid coral snake bites is to be aware of their possible presence and avoid handling or disturbing them. Some prevention tips include:

– Educate children about coral snake appearance and to avoid touching brightly colored snakes. Teach them the ‘red on yellow’ rhyme.

– Carefully survey areas before sitting on logs or putting hands in brush piles where snakes may hide.

– Wear boots and long pants when hiking through undergrowth.

– Don’t reach into areas you can’t clearly see. Use tools to move logs or debris instead of hands.

– Avoid handling dead snakes since reflex strikes with fangs can still occur.

– Keep homes and yards clear of brush piles, debris and food sources that attract rodents, snakes’ natural prey.

– If you encounter a coral snake, give it space and allow it to retreat. Don’t provoke or attack the snake.

– Know where coral snake antivenom is stored at local hospitals in case of bite.

By being alert and respecting coral snakes’ space, you can greatly reduce the very minimal risks involved. Their shy nature means bites are uncommon, but it’s still smart to take precautions.

Differences Between Coral Snakes and King Snakes

King snakes are often confused with coral snakes due to their similar coloration. Here are some differences:

Feature Coral Snake King Snake
Color pattern Red bands touch yellow bands Red bands touch black bands
Head color Black head with yellow or white snout tip Red, black or yellow head
Body shape Slender, short tail Thicker, longer tail
Average size 2-3 feet 3-6 feet
Venom Neurotoxic venom Non-venomous
Defensive behavior Try to hide or fake strike Loud hissing and thrashing

The key distinction remains the banding pattern, but other differences in head shape, scalation, and defensive displays can also help distinguish coral snakes from king snake mimics when identification is difficult. When in doubt, remember “if red touches yellow, best stay away” to avoid potential danger.


The old folk rhyme “red on yellow, kill a fellow” helps distinguish highly venomous coral snakes from similar looking but non-venomous king snakes. While coral snake bites are infrequent, their potent neurotoxic venom makes them very dangerous so correctly identifying them is important. This rhyme has likely saved many lives since coral snake antivenom is the only effective treatment.Learning more specific identification techniques, first aid, prevention and differences from king snakes is also beneficial when living in areas with coral snakes. With proper education and precautions, encounters with these shy but deadly snakes are unlikely to prove fatal. So whether you’re a hiker, camper or backyard gardener, remembering “red on yellow” can go a long way to staying safe from coral snakes.