Northern Scarlet Snake
Cemophora coccinea copei

** Harmless **

Common Name:

Northern Scarlet Snake

Scientific Name:

Cemophora coccinea copei



Cemophora is derived from the Greek words kemos meaning "muzzle" and phoreus meaning "bearer".


coccinea is derived from the Latin word coccineus which means "scarlet" or "crimson".


copei is a patronym honoring Edward Drinker Cope.

Vernacular Names:

False coral snake, milk snake

Average Length:

14 - 20 in. (36 - 51 cm)

Virginia Record Length:

25.6 in. (65.1 cm)

Record length:

32.6 in. (82.8 cm)

Virginia Wildlife Action Plan Rating Tier IV - Moderate Conservation Need - The species may be rare in parts of its range, particularly on the periphery. Populations of these species have demonstrated a significant declining trend or one is suspected which, if continued, is likely to qualify this species for a higher tier in the foreseeable future. Long-term planning is necessary to stabilize or increase populations.

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: This species is small to medium in size with smooth dorsal scales and an undivided anal plate. The adult has red and yellow (or white) bands separated by narrower black bands. The bands are present only on the dorsal surface and do not extend across the belly as in the kingsnake. Dark dots may occur on the yellow and red areas on the older specimens. The belly is whitish or yellowish. The snout is red and pointed and projects beyond the lower jaw. The head is barely distinct from the neck. The dorsal scales are smooth and there are 19 scale rows. Loreal and preocular scales are present *10760*. The longevity record for this species is 15 years *11523*. They are from 5 inches at hatching to a little over 30 inches. The adults are usually from 12 to 18 inches long *10760*. Outside Virginia, the maximum known total length is 32.5 inches *11523*. In Virginia, maximum known SVL is 575 mm (22.6 in.) and maximum total length is 651 mm (25.6 in.). Tail length/total length ratio averages 13.5+/-1.3 (11.3-16.3%, n=26).

SCUTELLATION: ventrals 158-174 (avg. = 161.9+/-3.9, n=28); subcaudals 33-48 (avg. = 39.0+/-3.5, n=28); ventrals + subcaudals 192-214 (avg. = 200.9+/-5.0, n=28); dorsal scales smooth; scale rows usually 19 (80%, n=24) or 20-21 (20%) at midbody; anal plate undivided; infralabials usually 7-7 (61.9%, n=21), other combinations of 6-8 (38.1%); supralabials usually 6-6 (69.6%, n=23), other combinations of 5-6 (30.4%); loreal present; preoculars 1-1; postoculars 2-2; temporals 1+2/1+2 (100%, n=23); rostral scale enlarged.

COLORATION and PATTERN: dorsal pattern consists of a series of 13-20 red blotches (avg. = 16.6+/-2.1, n=27) on the body and 3-6 on the tail, each of which is strongly outlined in black anteriorly and posteriorly; the black pigment on the lateral edges is irregular to faint; first black body saddle touches the black head band or is separated from it by one scale width; red portion of the anterior most saddle is 5-9 scales in length and the black borders are 1-2 scales wide; black pigment of saddles encroach onto lateral edges of the ventral scales in some individuals; spaces between saddles pale yellow or white and may be peppered with black to brown pigment in large individuals; these spaces are 0.5-2 scales wide at midbody; venter and lower jaw cream in color and lack other pigmentation; anterior portion of head red; a black band lies across the head behind the eyes. A muzzle-like snout formed from the enlarged rostral scale projects beyond the lower jaw. The head is slightly elongated and is only as wide as the neck. The last 2 rear teeth on the maxillary bones in the upper jaw are enlarged and saber-like.*10760*

SEXUAL DIMORPHISM: Average adult SVL is greater in males (450.1+/-99.6 mm, 295-575, n=9) than in females (361.9+/-76.7 mm, 260-483, n=9). Sexual dimorphism index is -1.24. Body mass is unknown. Males and females are similar in average number of ventral scales (males 161.3+/-3.3, 158-168, n=12; females 162.4+/-4.3, 158-174, n=16), but males have a higher average number of subcaudal scales (41.3+/-3.0, 36-48, n=12) than females (37.2+/-2.7, 33-42, n=16). No sexual dimorphism is exhibited by average tail length/total length ratio (males 13.5+/-1.3, 11.5-15.2, n=11; females 13.4+/-1.3, 11.3-16.3, n=15) or in average number of body blotches (males 16.7+/-2.6, 14-19, n=12; females 16.6+/1.5, 13-20, n=15). The average number of ventrals + subcaudals is only slightly higher in males (202.6+/-5.3, 194-214, n=12) than females (199.6+/-4.5, 192-209, n=16). There are no apparent differences in color and pattern.*10760*

JUVENILES: Juveniles at hatching are patterned as adults but the saddles are pinkish rather than red. The colors become darker and duller in old individuals. Hatchlings from a single Virginia female averaged 156 mm (150-164) total length.*10760*

CONFUSING SPECIES: this species may be confused only with Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum x elapsiodes intergrades whose red, black and white body bands nearly encircle the body. The coral snake (Micrurus flvius), with alternating red, black, and yellow body bands and a black snout, does not occur in Virginia.*10760*

REPRODUCTION: This species reproduces in June and July and lays from 2-9 elongate, whitish eggs in moist decaying logs or moist soil *2064,1006*. The males are mature at 823 mm and the females at 650 mm *2064*. The eggs are from 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches long and are hatched from midsummer to early fall *1006*. Gibbons and Semlitsch reported finding a juvenile in May emerging from an egg that was in sandy soil 1.3 meters below the surface.*10760*

BEHAVIOR: This species is a nocturnal burrower *1006*. It is usually active from spring to late fall or early winter *2064*. They feed on lizards small snakes, mice, insects, slugs and reptile eggs *2064*. Most prey is killed by constriction *1006*. Scarlet snakes are one of the few in Virginia that actively burrow in soil. The head is thrust forward, upward, and side to side while forcing the snout deeper into the soil. Nelson and Gibbons reported that C. coccinea moves at minimal rates of 15 m per day during its active season. Clifford listed only one C. coccinea among the 278 snakes found in a 4 ear period in Amelia Co. The population ecology of this species is unknown.*10760* Of 25 specimens observed in the wild, all were nocturnal *11523*.

AQUATIC/TERRESTRIAL ASSOCIATIONS: This species is often mistaken for the scarlet kingsnake and the coral snake. The colors are a defensive measure against predators *1006*.

References for Life History

  • 1006 - Linzey, D.W., M.J. Clifford, 1981, Snakes of Virginia, Univ. of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, VA
  • 2064 - Wright, A.H., Wright, A.A., 1975, Handbook of snakes of the United States and Canada, Vol. 2, pg. 565-1105, Comstock Pub. Assoc., Ithaca, N.Y


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Verified County/City Occurrence

Alleghany County
Amelia County
Brunswick County
Charles City County
Charlotte County
Chesapeake City
Chesterfield County
Cumberland County
Dinwiddie County
Fairfax City
Gloucester County
Hanover County
Henrico County
Henry County
Isle of Wight County
James City County
King and Queen County
New Kent County
Newport News City
Nottoway County
Petersburg City
Powhatan County
Prince Edward County
Prince George County
Southampton County
Surry County
Sussex County
Virginia Beach City
Verified in 28 Counties/Cities.


Virginia is home to 28 species of frogs and toads.


We have a large diversity of salamanders consisting of 56 different species and subspecies.


Virginia is home to 9 native lizard species and two introduced species, the Mediterranean Gecko and the Italian Wall Lizard.


The Commonwealth is home to 34 species and subspecies of snake. Only 3 species are venomous.


Virginia has 25 species and subspecies of turtle. Five of these species are sea turtle.