For a small, harmless animal, the forest is a dangerous place. Hungry mouths from the air and the ground are always looking for something to eat.

Scarlet Kingsnake. Used under Creative Commons License. Photo by Glenn Bartolotti.

If you’re a tiny snake without a drop of poison in your mouth, how do you deal with this risk? You could try to avoid being noticed. Color your skin like a leaf pile, only ungather when danger has passed. But one harmless snake has a totally different strategy that’s about as subtle as a freight train.

Emblazoned in flashy bands of red, yellow, and black, the scarlet kingsnake makes it easy for predators to spot it against the earthy browns and greens of the forest floor. So why wear such bright colors?

It’s because the scarlet kingsnake is a mimic.

Scarlet kingsnakes share the woods with the coral snake, a dangerously venomous snake with enough venom in its mouth to kill five adult humans. Few predators would choose to tangle with the coral snake, and the coral snake makes it easy for predators to know when she’s around. By dressing in bright bands of red… yellow… and black. Same as the scarlet kingsnake.

Eastern coral Snake. Photo by JD Willson.

The kingsnake deals with risk by pretending to be a dangerous coral snake. It’s like walking around the worst parts of town with a holstered squirt gun. It keeps you safe, as long as no one calls your bluff.

The strategy certainly works for the scarlet kingsnake. Studies have shown that predators really can’t tell the difference between the two snakes so they avoid them both. Even though the scarlet kingsnake lacks the bite to back up its frightening costume.

And that’s how a harmless little snake stays safe in the forest by making itself obvious. By pretending to be something it’s not.

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