Description: Scarlet snakes are fairly small -- to 20 in (51 cm) -- relatively slender snakes that are patterned with alternating red, black, and white or yellow bands. Scarlet snakes are one of the three "tricolored" snakes in our region and, like the harmless scarlet kingsnake, have red bands that do not touch yellow bands. However, this species can be distinguished from the scarlet kingsnake because the kingsnake's bands completely or nearly completely encircle the body while the bands of the scarlet snake do not extend onto the venter, leaving the underside solid white, pink, or grayish. The venomous eastern coral snake has a black snout and red bands that touch yellow ones. Scarlet snakes generally have a snout that is pointed and red and red bands that are wider than bands of other colors. Young resemble adults.
Range and Habitat: Scarlet snakes are found throughout Coastal Plain and Piedmont regions of the southeastern U.S., from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey west to Oklahoma and throughout Florida. Within this region, however, they are generally most common in the Coastal Plain and Sandhills and are uncommon and scattered in distribution within the Piedmont. In our region, they are found in all but the mountainous regions of northern Georgia and northwestern South Carolina. Scarlet snakes are adept burrowers and prefer forested habitats with dry sandy soils. They are frequently found in pine forest and sandhill scrub habitats.
Habits: Like many of the small fossorial snakes in our region, scarlet snakes spend most of their lives underground and are most frequently encountered hiding beneath logs, rocks, leaf-litter, or debris such as boards, tin, or trash. Scarlet snakes are never active above ground during the day: however, at night scarlet snakes do move above ground and are often encountered crossing rural roads on hot summer nights. Scarlet snakes feed primarily on eggs of other reptiles and have enlarged teeth that they use to open eggs that are too large to swallow whole. They also occasionally consume small lizards, snakes, and frogs. Little is known about the reproductive biology of this species but females are known to lay 2 – 9 eggs in the early summer.
Interesting Facts: Like the other harmless tricolored snakes in the U.S., the pattern of the scarlet snake has been proposed to mimic the venomous coral snakes, presumably discouraging predators. In the U.S., the rhyme “red-touch-black, venom-lack; red-touch-yellow kill a fellow” can be used to distinguish these species. Scarlet snakes rarely bite when picked up.
Conservation Status: Scarlet snakes are generally common in our region and are not protected.
Account author: J.D. Willson