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Facts About Cobras

indian cobra
Indian cobra
Credit: Kamalnv, Wikipedia

Cobras, with their threatening hoods and intimidating upright postures, are some of the most iconic snakes on Earth. Their elegance, prideful stance and venomous bite have made them both respected and feared.

"Cobra" is the common name for a group of poisonous snakes in Africa and Southern Asia. The word comes from the Portuguese cobra de capello, which means "hooded snake." There is some controversy about what exactly a cobra is, and the number of cobra species ranges from 28 to about 270 depending on how a cobra is defined. Genetically “true” cobras are members of the genus Naja, but many other snakes, including the black mamba and king cobra, while not members of this genus, are commonly considered cobras because they possess hoods, poisonous fangs and the ability to raise the upper part of their body.

endangered species, conservation
The King Cobra (Ophiophagus Hannah), listed as vulnerable, due to loss of habitat and over exploitation for medicinal purposes, is the world
Credit: Bosse Jonsson

Cobra characteristics

Cobras are Elapids, a type of poisonous snake with hollow fangs fixed to the top jaw at the front of the mouth. They have an excellent sense of smell and night vision. In addition to their trademark hoods, cobras have round pupils and smooth scales.

Colors vary widely from species to species. There are red, yellow, black, mottled, banded and many other colors and patterns of cobra.

Cobras are large snakes; many species reach more than 6 feet long (2 meters). The forest cobra is the largest true cobra, reaching 10 feet (3 m), and Ashe’s spitting cobra is 9 feet (2.7 m), making it the world’s largest spitting cobra. The smallest species is the Mozambique spitting cobra, which is about 4 feet long (1.2 m). King cobras, the longest of all venomous snakes, can reach 18 feet (5.5 m).

Habitat

Cobras typically live in hot, tropical areas but are also found in deserts, grasslands, forests and farming areas in Africa and Southern Asia. They like to spend time underground, under rocks and in trees.

Credit: The Cobra Information Site
Credit: The Cobra Information Site

Habits

Cobras have several scary-looking behaviors designed to scare off potential threats. They spread their famous hoods, which are made of flaps of skin attached to long ribs, when feeling angry or threatened. At the same time, cobras raise the upper part of their body, which in addition to signaling a willingness to attack helps them search for food. Cobras may hiss loudly at predators and other threats, and some species also spit. [Countdown: 7 Shocking Snake Stories]

Cobras reproduce by laying eggs. Females typically lay 20 to 40 eggs at a time, which incubate between 60 and 80 days. Cobras will stay near the eggs and defend them until they hatch. Wild boars and mongooses are known to steal cobra eggs.

The mongoose is the best-known enemy of the cobra. Mongooses have thick fur to protect against cobra fangs and often defeat cobras in fights using their speed and agility. They can bite the cobra’s back before the snake can defend itself. Cobras are also threatened from other snakes and humans.

Cobras are typically opportunistic hunters, chowing down on whatever prey comes their way. Often, they eat birds, small mammals, lizards, eggs, carrion and other snakes. They slither through the wilderness silently, following their prey until they are ready to attack. Most cobras hunt at dawn or dusk, though some species forage during the heat of the day.

Like other snakes, cobras have a very slow metabolism that allows them to go for days or even months without feeding.

Cobra bite

Cobras are highly venomous and potentially deadly. Many species have potent neurotoxic venom, which attacks the nervous system of the prey, leading to respiratory paralysis if untreated. Humans attacked by these cobras may stop breathing within 30 minutes. If no antivenom is available, lives can be saved by putting victims on an artificial respirator.

Some cobras, including all spitting cobras, have cytotoxic venom that attacks body tissue and causes severe pain, swelling and possible necrosis (death of cells and tissue). Spitting cobras also have the ability to shoot venom from their fangs directly into the eyes of the victim with terrifying accuracy. Venom in the eyes can lead to blindness if not washed out well.

Venomous snake
Egyptian cobras possess a deadly venom that attacks the nervous system.
Credit: public domain

King Cobra

These 18-footers are the longest of all venomous snakes. Their warning hiss sounds similar to a growling dog. Like other cobras, they rear up the front third of their body when threatened, and in the case of the king cobra that third can be as tall as a person. Angry king cobras can literally look you in the eye!

Though there are other snakes with more potent venom, the amount of neurotoxin that a king cobra can emit in one bite is enough to kill 20 people — or one elephant. Fortunately, king cobras are shy and avoid people.

King cobras are the only species of snake to build nests for their young, which they guard ferociously. They reside in trees, on land and in water, and are found in the rain forests and plains of India, southern China and Southeast Asia. Their coloring varies from region to region.

King Cobras are a popular species for snake charmers in South Asia, though the cobras cannot actually hear the music (being deaf to ambient noise). They are enticed by the shape and movement of the flute.

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