Northern Scarletsnake (Cemophora coccinea copei)
This smallish snake is identified by a tricolored pattern of "red", "black", and "white". In truth, the three main colors can vary greatly. The "red" color may range from a bright red to a duller orange, whereas the "white" color is typically more gray, cream, or even tan. Although the patterning follows a red-black-white-black alternation, there is great variation within this construct so that no two specimens ever look exactly alike. The belly coloration is a solid cream. The snout is generally red and very pointed for digging. The eyes are black and beady.
This species can be distinguished from the more common Milksnake (the other nonvenomous "tricolored" in Arkansas) by the shape of its head. The Milksnake has a decidedly more rounded snout than in the Scarletsnake. Also, the Milksnake has a patterned belly, whereas the Scarletsnake's is plain.
This species, a coralsnake mimic, can be distiguished from the venomous Texas Coralsnake by the shape of the head and alternation of colors. The Texas Coralsnake has a black, round head and "red touches yellow".
This tricolored snake is sometimes incorrectly called a Scarlet Kingsnake. ''Lampropeltis elapsoides is the true Scarlet Kingsnake and is not found in Arkansas.
This species is an extremely shy and reclusive burrower; seeming to prefer loose soils. On the very rare occasions where one is uncovered, it is almost always during excavation work. Specimens have also been found on warm nights or after heavy summer rains. Despite these generalities, finding a Scarletsnake still seems to me to be "a stroke of pure luck".
Due to their rarity and difficulty of keeping in captivity, little is known of their habits or life history. They are known to lay eggs.
In the wild, this species preys almost exclusively on other reptile eggs. If an egg cannot be swallowed completely, the snake will twist and chew the egg until its contents are exposed, then it will ingest the soft contents. Occasionally, lizards, small mice, and other snakes are taken as prey; killed by constriction.
The primary defense for this species is its secretive and fossorial nature. If uncovered, the bright coloration provides a warning to a potential predator. In essence, the bright reds and bold patterning symbolize that the snake is either dangerous or tastes bad. In this case, the warning is a complete bluff!
Of the few specimens I have handled, I have found this species to be fairly easy to handle and reluctant to bite. Like many snakes, a specimen in hand will emit feces and a foul-smelling musk as a deterrent. One may also try to burrow into a handler's hands with its sharp snout.
This species currently has no special protections in Arkansas. Due to its rarity of appearance, it is monitored by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission as a rare species (though it is thought to be numerically secure). Still, data for this species is sparse and much more needs to be learned to ensure its future existence.