Published October 27, 2021. Open access.

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Black-backed Coralsnake (Micrurus melanotus)

Reptiles of Ecuador | Serpentes | Elapidae | Micrurus | Micrurus melanotus

English common names: Black-backed Coralsnake, Slender Black Coralsnake, Andean Blackback Coralsnake.

Spanish common names: Coral negra, coral negra esbelta, coral espalda negra andina.

Recognition: ♂♂ 93.6 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=89.3 cm. ♀♀ 117.3 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=113.1 cm..1,2 In Ecuador, Micrurus melanotus is one of two coralsnakes that lack complete body rings.3 It can be distinguished from most other snakes by its long and slender body, short tail (3.4–8.1% of snout-vent length), and unique coloration.4,5 It has an entirely black dorsum and head, interrupted only by a bright red to yellow nape band (Fig. 1).1,4 The ventral surfaces are also black with 41–60 bright yellow to orange bands or spots. The tail bears 2–3 bright red bands that may encircle the whole body or be confined to the ventral side.4,5 Males of M. melanotus also have a high number of ventral (more than 250) and subcaudal (more than 26) scales than other coralsnakes.4 The only other snake having a similar coloration in Ecuador is M. scutiventris. However, individuals of this species are smaller in body size and have less than 32 red to yellow ventral bands and males have less than 250 ventral scales.4

Figure showing and adult female individual of Micrurus melanotus

Figure 1: Adult female individual of Micrurus melanotus from Suchipakari Lodge, Napo province, Ecuador.

Natural history: Micrurus melanotus is an extremely rare semi-fossorial snake that inhabits pristine to moderately disturbed rainforests, occurring also in clearings and forest borders near agricultural areas.4,6 Individuals have been seen active on the leaf-litter during the day or at night.47 They also have been found hidden under logs or buried under soil.1 These snakes actively forage in search of prey, which includes snakes (species in the genus Epictia),8 lizards (species in the genus Bachia),5 and caecilians (Oscaecilia bassleri).7 Black-backed Coralsnakes rely on their camouflage and secretive habits as a primary defense mechanism. They are more calm and docile than other coralsnake species. If disturbed, they engage in complex and seemingly erratic behavior: they hide the head beneath body coils, crawl spasmodically forward and then backward, and display the brightly colored underside of the tail as a decoy.1,4,6 The venom in M. melanotus is neurotoxic and is probably lethal to humans, but only one published record of envenomation exist.4 A Huaorani woman developed mild symptoms after being bitten. These included local pain, facial numbness, and headache.4

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Conservation: Least Concern Believed to be safe from extinction given current circumstances..4,9 Micrurus melanotus is included in this category because the species is widely distributed, occurs in major protected areas, has presumed stable populations, and is currently facing no major widespread extinction threats. The most important threat to the long-term survival of some populations is habitat destruction mostly due to mining, oil extraction, and the expansion of the agricultural frontier.4

Distribution: Micrurus melanotus is native to the western Amazon basin and the adjacent foothills of the Andes in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador (Fig. 2), and Perú.

Distribution of Micrurus melanotus in Ecuador

Figure 2: Distribution of Micrurus melanotus in Ecuador. The star corresponds to the type locality: Sarayacu. See Appendix 1 for a complete list of the presence localities included in the map.

Etymology: The name Micrurus is derived from the Greek words mikros (=small) and oura (=tail), referring to the short tail in members of this group.3 The specific epithet melanotus comes from the Greek words melas (=black) and notos (=back),10 referring to the entirely black dorsal coloration.

See it in the wild: Black-backed Coralsnakes are usually found at a rate of about once every few years. In Ecuador, the locality having the greatest number of recent observations of Micrurus melanotus is Jatun Sacha Reserve, where these snakes are typically found along forest trails right after sunset, especially after a warm and rainy day.

Acknowledgments: This account was published with the support of Secretaría Nacional de Educación Superior Ciencia y Tecnología (programa INEDITA; project: Respuestas a la crisis de biodiversidad: la descripción de especies como herramienta de conservación; No 00110378), Programa de las Naciones Unidas (PNUD), and Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ).

Author: Alejandro ArteagaaAffiliation: Khamai Foundation, Quito, Ecuador.

Photographer: Jose VieirabAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador.,cAffiliation: ExSitu, Quito, Ecuador.

How to cite? Arteaga A (2021) Black-backed Coralsnake (Micrurus melanotus). In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: DOI: 10.47051/MYDK2345

Literature cited:

  1. Duellman WE (1978) The biology of an equatorial herpetofauna in Amazonian Ecuador. Publications of the Museum of Natural History, University of Kansas 65: 1–352.
  2. Schramer TD, Kalki Y, Wylie DB (2018) Micrurus narduccii melanotus (Andean Black-backed Coralsnake): maximum length. Herpetological Review 49: 551.
  3. Campbell JA, Lamar WW (2004) The venomous reptiles of the western hemisphere. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 774 pp.
  4. Valencia JH, Garzón-Tello K, Barragán-Paladines ME (2016) Serpientes venenosas del Ecuador: sistemática, taxonomía, historial natural, conservación, envenenamiento y aspectos antropológicos. Fundación Herpetológica Gustavo Orcés, Quito, 653 pp.
  5. Roze JA (1996) Coral snakes of the Americas: biology, indentification, and venoms. Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, 328 pp.
  6. Field notes, Reptiles of Ecuador book project.
  7. Ramos JA (2017) Micrurus narduccii (Leptomicrurus narduccii) (Andean Blackback Coralsnake): diet. Herpetologcal Review 48: 677–678.
  8. Carrillo de Espinosa N (1983) Contribución al conocimiento de las serpientes venenosas del Perú de las familias Viperidae, Elapidae, e Hydrophiidae (Ophidia: Reptilia). Publicaciones del Museo de Historia Natural “Javier Prado,” Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Serie Zoología 30: 1–55.
  9. Carrillo E, Aldás A, Altamirano M, Ayala F, Cisneros-Heredia DF, Endara A, Márquez C, Morales M, Nogales F, Salvador P, Torres ML, Valencia J, Villamarín F, Yánez-Muñoz M, Zárate P (2005) Lista roja de los reptiles del Ecuador. Fundación Novum Millenium, Quito, 46 pp.
  10. Brown RW (1956) Composition of scientific words. Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C., 882 pp.

Appendix 1: Locality data used to create the distribution map of Micrurus melanotus in Ecuador (Fig. 2). Go to the section on symbols and abbreviations for a list of acronyms used.

ColombiaCaquetáChonchillosaCampbell & Lamar 2004
ColombiaPutumayoEstación de bombeo Guamuéz (=Guamués)KU 140414
ColombiaPutumayoRío PutumayoFMNH 165335
EcuadorMorona SantiagoAchuentzValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorMorona SantiagoAmazonasValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorMorona SantiagoChanala–Macas trailValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorMorona SantiagoChiguazaValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorMorona SantiagoMacasValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorMorona SantiagoMacumaUIMNH 61059
EcuadorMorona SantiagoPuerto MoronaPhoto by Fernando Ayala
EcuadorMorona SantiagoTurulaValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorNapoArchidonaCAS 143302
EcuadorNapoArosemena Tola, 0.7 km S ofKU 202955
EcuadorNapoGareno LodgeThis work
EcuadorNapoJatun Sacha Biological StationHernández-Sánchez 2013
EcuadorNapoJumandyMHNG 2441.015
EcuadorNapoMisahuallíValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorNapoRío PayaminoUSNM 232456
EcuadorNapoRío SunoValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorNapoSuchipakari LodgeThis work
EcuadorOrellanaÁvila ViejoValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorOrellanaBloque 16Valencia et al. 2016
EcuadorOrellanaEdénCampbell & Lamar 2004
EcuadorOrellanaEl CocaMHNG 2248.093
EcuadorOrellanaHollín–Loreto–Coca, km 65MHNG 2453.018
EcuadorOrellanaKawymeno (Kawimeno)Valencia et al. 2016
EcuadorOrellanaLoretoValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorOrellanaÑoneno (Ñuneno)Valencia et al. 2016
EcuadorOrellanaPozo EweValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorOrellanaRío CotapinoValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorOrellanaRío HuataracoValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorOrellanaSan José de PayaminoValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaAndoasValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaArajunoValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaBobonazaValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaCanelosOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaCentro Shuar AmazonasValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaCopatazaValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaMontalvoUSNM 232470
EcuadorPastazaPucayacu (Río Pucayacu)Valencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaPuyoValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaQuehueirionoValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaRío Arajuno, headwaters ofUSNM 232459
EcuadorPastazaRío BufeoValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaRío CapahuariValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaRío ConamboValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaRío CopatazaValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaRío CorrientesValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaRío Oglán AltoValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaRío Pastaza Valencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaRío PindoValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaRío TigreValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaSarayacu*Peters 1881
EcuadorPastazaShellValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorPastazaSumak Kawsay In SituiNaturalist
EcuadorPastazaVillano K32Valencia et al. 2016
EcuadorSucumbíosLago AgrioDuellman 1978
EcuadorSucumbíosLimoncochaSchramer et al. 2018
EcuadorSucumbíosPuerto El CarmenValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorSucumbíosPutumayoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosSanta CeciliaDuellman 1978
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeTundaymeValencia et al. 2016
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeValle del QuimiBetancourt et al. 2018
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeYantzazaUMMZ 90823
PerúAmazonasAguaruna VillageMVZ 163413
PerúAmazonasLa PozaUSNM 549433
PerúAmazonasPuerto GalileaUSNM 549431
PerúAmazonasSan Antonio, Río CenepaUSNM 316646
PerúLoretoJeberosCampbell & Lamar 2004