The generic name (Lampropeltis) is derived from the Ancient Greek lamprós (λαμπρος) meaning "bright" and peltas (πελτα) meaning "shield", after the sheen of their scales. Its specific name, elapsoides, is a Latinization of the Greek word éllops which refers to coral and is used to describe the genus of the elapids, which includes the coral snake, a species the scarlet kingsnake resembles.
It was once believed that Scarlet Kingsnakes intergrade with the Eastern Milksnake which produced a variation once named the coastal plains milk snake (Latin: Lampropeltis triangulum temporalis), but this is no longer recognized as a legitimate subspecies.
Scarlet Kingsnakes have a tri-color pattern of black, red, white, and various shades of yellow bands that are believed by some to mimic the venomous coral snake. A method to help differentiate between venomous and non venomous tri-color snakes in North America is found in the popular phrases "red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black venom lack" or "If red touches yellow, you're a dead fellow; if red touches black, you're all right, Jack" and "Red and black is a friend of Billy Jack". While these sayings are helpful, many people become creative with it making it more difficult than useful. There is a much easier way to remember the difference between the Coral Snake and Scarlet Kingsnake in the Southeast. Coral Snakes have a black snout, while Scarlet Kingsnakes have a red snout. No two other snakes in this region can be confused for these two species, so an easier rhyme is "Red face, safe in my space." Note that as one moves westward into western Louisiana, Texas and further west that this simple rhyme no longer applies as many species of milksnakes can have black snouts.
All Scarlet Kingsnakes are born with white banding. With adults that have shades of yellow instead of white, the juveniles develop the yellow, apricot, or tangerine colored banding of their parents as increase in length, with most specimens expressing this beginning around 10 inches.
Scarlet kingsnakes are secretive, mostly nocturnal, fossorial snakes and are seldom seen by people. Loose bark on rotting pine trees is a favorite place for them to hide during spring or during heavy rains. They are often found at the base of decaying pines below the fallen bark, decaying wood, and soil where they hunt for they favorite prey, skinks.