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Cobra Snake

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About Cobra Snake

Etymologically the word cobra is derived from the Portuguese ‘cobra de capello’ which connotes ‘hooded snake’.  Even a lay man without any specific knowledge about snakes or reptiles can recognize a cobra for their prideful stance and elegance.  This is because Cobra belongs to the family of elapid snakes, most of which belong to the genus Naja.  Elapidae is a family of venomous snakes which display the most distinguishing of snake poses, not only the ones used in popular culture but also represented in ancient art.  Most members of this family are recognized by the rearing upwards while spreading the neck-flap or in other words, the hooded display.  They also have visibly erect fangs in front of the mouth.  These fangs or cobra teeth are used to pour venom into their prey much like the hypodermic needles. They are mostly found in the tropical and subtropical regions around the world.  While the land variety is found in Asia, Australia, Africa and the Americas, the water forms can be seen in the Pacific and the Indian Oceans.  


Interestingly, experts differ in what exactly is a cobra.  Depending upon how one defines cobra the number of species belonging to the ‘true’ cobra family ranges from 28 to about 270 including Taipans, Adders, Mambas and many other sea snakes including Kraits. Genetically they are members of the genus Naja. But some experts opine that they also belong to a venomous snake family called Elapidae. However, Elapidae includes other varieties of snake as well, many of which either have hoods or can raise the upper part of the body. There is a lot of cobra information and research on them specially because of the medicinal properties of their venom. 

 

Cobra Representative Species

We have observed that there are numerous types of cobra snakes. Since there is difference in opinion as to what exactly a cobra is, we can discuss a few snakes which are cobra representative species. 

  • Source of inspiration for many myths and legends throughout their habitat, the King Cobra or the Ophiophagus Hannah is not really a ‘true’ cobra.  They do not belong to the Naja genus but to the Ophiophagus.  The longest venomous snake species is the King Cobra. The adults can grow upto a whooping 18 feet in length and live up to 25 years. In spite of their size, the King Cobra is extremely agile. They are found predominantly in forests of India throughout Southeast Asia to the Philippines. The King Cobra eats other snakes and they even attack larger snakes like python.  The easiest way to identify them is through their occipitals or a large pair of scales at the back of the top of the head.  Much research has been done on this species of snakes, especially the medicinal properties of their venom which is highly neurotoxic. King cobras make nests which are laid in the mound of leaves and guard a nest of 20 to 40 eggs. Not all cobras lay eggs. The baby cobra is banded and is more vibrantly coloured than adults. As they grow up the bands gradually vanish.  The adult king cobras have brown or olive colours.  In Myanmar, however, the adult king cobras are known to be banded.

  • The Indian Cobra or the Naja naja is one of the most dangerous snakes.  They are responsible for about 10,000 snakebites every year and are one among the ‘Big Four’ snakes of southern Asia which contribute to the majority of human deaths by snakebite. The Indian Cobras grow about 4 to 7 feet. These cobras are found in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India to Southeast Asia and Malaysia. They are also known as Indian spectacled cobra because of the distinguishing mark of a V shaped spectacle design on the back of the hood. Their colours however vary. They feed on rodents and are found in the village areas because of the presence of their food items. The Indian Cobras are used by the snake charmers in India and are revered in Hindu mythology.  They were formerly considered to be the same species but researchers have discovered nearly a dozen of species some of whom are venom spitting. 

  • It is easy to recognize the monocle cobra (Naja kaouthia) by their unique O shaped pattern on their hoods.  They are found in India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Nepal and Laos.  Biogeographical variations exist between their venoms. On an average they can be about 4 to 5 feet.  They live in small rodent burrows and eat small mammals, rodents, snakes and amphibians.   

  • Egyptian Cobras (Naja haje) are the second largest cobra species of Africa.  They live in Savannah and semi-desert regions of Africa.  They grow to about 8 feet. 

  • The Forest Cobra (Naja melanoleuca) is supposed to be the largest true cobra.  They are found in western, central and south Africa. As the name suggests they live in forests or woodlands and hardly encounter humans.  It is a diurnal species.  

  • Cape Cobra (Naja nivea) is one of the most dangerous snakes found in Africa.  It is medium sized and is about 4 to 5 feet in length. 

  • Spitting cobras (Naja spp.) are capable of projecting venoms from their fangs (sometimes up to 9 feet) against their predators. The ringhals or spitting cobras (hemachatus haemachatus) are of Southern Africa.  The black necked cobra (Naja nigricollis) also spit. The venom is usually targeted to the eyes and even a small quantity produces intense pain, swelling and disruption of the cornea. Research shows that the two groups of spitting cobras of Asia and Africa have independently evolved this ability.  Their fang anatomy is different compared to other cobras.  There are seven species of African spitting cobras and seven Asiatic spitting cobras.

  • Tree cobras (genus Pseudohaje) are found in equatorial Africa.  These and the mambas are the only arboreal members of the Elapidae family.   

Where Do Cobras Live?

Cobras live in hot, tropical areas.  They also live in savannahs, grasslands, forests and farming areas in Africa and Southern Asia.  They mostly prefer to stay underground, like under rocks and some stay in trees.

 

What Do Cobras Eat?

Cobras are hunters.  They quietly follow their prey and attack when ready.  They are agile and fast. Cobras are cannibals.  It means that they eat other snakes.  Kraits feed almost exclusively on other snakes. The other species eat birds, bird eggs, small mammals and rodents.

 

Habits of a Cobra

Defensive display of the cobra is its most distinctive behavioural characteristics. Hooding, hissing and raising the upper portion of their bodies to stand erect are some of the ways they display their defensive moods. Most cobras can stand with one third of their body length.  Apart from showing that they are ready to fight and attack, this serves another very important purpose.  It helps them to search for food.  They also hiss loudly almost like the growl of a dog. This becomes threatening to the predators and others.  The spitting cobras also spit to ward away the predators.  


Apart from man, the mongoose is the main enemy of the cobras. The mongoose and wild boars steal their eggs.  Mongooses have thick fur which protects them against the cobra fangs.  They are also a match to cobra’s speed and agility.  They take the cobra unaware and usually bite the back of the cobra.  However, they rarely attack the cobra unless threatened and have to. The cobras hunt at dawn or dusk. Cobras have very slow metabolism.  Therefore, they can go for days and even months without food.  

 

Fun Facts about Cobra Snake 

  • Many myths and legends are there revolving  around the cobra. 

  • The cobra symbolizes a wide range of things throughout the world imagination, like wisdom, hypnosis, royalty, death, sexual urges, danger, fear, strength, etc. 

  • Cobras are revered and often worshipped in India.

  • Cobras in ancient Egypt were seen as protectors of the Pharaoh.  Queen Cleopatra allegedly committed suicide of a cobra bite. 

  • While facing the enemy, the King cobra acts like a tough guy by expanding their ribs and growling!

  • The King Cobras shed 4 to 6 times a year.  One unique feature of the king cobras is that unlike any other snakes they build nests for protection of their eggs. 

  • Wild boars and mongoose steal cobra eggs.

  • Mongoose is immune to Cobra venom!

  • Many true cobras are crepuscular but King Cobras are diurnal.  

  • The spitting cobras accurately spit on their preys’ eyes. They can spit venom up to 1.8 meters.

  • Snake charmers often charm the king cobra. They are mesmerized by the shape and movement of the flute and not by the sound.

  • Rudyard Kipling, the Nobel Prize winning author and creator of Mowgli featured a pair of Indian Cobras in his famous short story Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

  • Cobras may be majestic but do not make good pets.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q1. How Do the Cobras Mate?

Ans. The mating period of the cobras varies in length. The female begins the process.  They leave a trail of chemical signals to attract the male.  Most of the cobra males engage in a mating dance for the female.  The females lay about 12 to 60 eggs annually.  The eggs are guarded for 45 to 80 days.  To keep the eggs warm, the snakes vibrate their bodies.  The king cobra builds a nest to keep the eggs warm.  The mothers leave the nest towards the ends of the incubation period lest they should accidently eat the newly hatched snakes.  The young cobras once hatched go away as soon as possible.

Q2. Is Cobra Bite Fatal?

Ans. Depending upon the amount of venom, injected bites can be fatal.  If left untreated, cobra bites can be fatal.  Fortunately, antivenin is available, but it must be administered soon after the bite.  Neurotoxic cobra bite can lead to the following symptoms – difficulty in breathing and swallowing, respiratory failure, necrosis, skeletal muscle weakness, problems with vision, abdominal pain, anticoagulation, etc. It may take about 30 minutes for a human victim to stop breathing after being bitten by a cobra. All spitting cobras and some other cobras have cytotoxic venom.  This type of venom affects the body tissues and causes severe pain, swelling and possible death of cells and tissue (known as necrosis).  Thousands die in South and Southeast Asia because of cobra bites.   

Q3. What are the Main Threats to the Cobras?

Ans. The main threat to Southeast Asian cobra is loss of their habitat due to deforestation.  Expansion of agricultural land is also a major threat to them. They are also poached for their meat, skin and use in traditional Chinese medicine.  

Q4. Is there Any Effort of Protection of the Cobras?

Ans. CITES Appendix II lists the King Cobra. It is protected in China and Vietnam. Schedule II of Wildlife Protection Act 1972 in India lists it under it to give protection to it. Killing a king cobra is punishable by imprisonment up to 6 years. 

Q5. What are the Main Cobra Snake Characteristics?

Ans. A study of the cobra diagram will give a fair idea about its hood, fangs, tail and body looks. Cobras are Elapids. Cobras are poisonous snakes. They have hollow fangs fixed to the top jaw at the front of the mouth.  As they are unable to hold their fangs down on the prey they perform an injection like function with their fangs. Their sense of smell is excellent.  They can also see at night. The pupils of the cobra are round and they have smooth scales.  Cobras come in many colours and patterns – red, yellow, black, banded, mottled, spectacled, etc.

 

Cobras are large snakes. Many species are more than 6 feet. The forest cobra is the largest ‘true’ cobra and can reach up to 10 feet. Ashe’s spitting cobra can become 9 feet and is the largest spitting cobra. The Mozambique spitting cobra is about 4 feet long and is the smallest species of cobra.

 

The most distinguishing physical feature of the cobra is their hood. Their hoods are at the same time stunning and threatening.