The King (Cobra) Is Dead (and So Is the Python)

Judging by the interlocked combatants' bodies, no quarter was given in the final minutes of this deadly struggle.

Captured in a dramatic photo shared yesterday (Feb. 1) to Imgur, a grim scene hints at a violent battle to the death between two giant snakes, identified in the caption as a reticulated python (Python reticulatus) and a king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah), both native to Southeast Asia and among the biggest snakes in the world.

Both are formidable serpents. The reticulated python is the longest and heaviest snake on Earth, reaching 23 feet (7 meters) in length and weighing as much as 165 lbs. (75 kilograms), and wielding considerable constricting power. Meanwhile, the king cobra can measure about 18 feet (5.5 m) long and weigh up to 20 lbs. (9 kg), and has a bite that packs enough neurotoxins to fell an Asian elephant. But when these two individuals squared off, neither survived the encounter. [Viper vs. Viper! Never-Before-Seen Combat Recorded]

The photo, which was uncredited, appears to have been taken in a shallow ditch in an area where people live, judging from the empty plastic water bottles and other assorted trash scattered nearby. The location is almost certainly in tropical Asia, as that would be the only place where the two snake species would be living in close proximity in the wild, Frank Burbrink, an associate curator in the Department of Herpetology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, told Live Science.

A tangled tussle

At first glance, it's hard to tell from the image where one snake's body ends and where the other's begins. A closer look helps to separate them — the cobra's jaws are locked onto the neck of the python, while the python's diamond-patterned body is tightly coiled in snug loops around the cobra's neck and upper body. The cobra's lower body extends away from the muscular knot that binds the two snakes.

"And they're both big ones," Burbrink pointed out. Though there's little in the image to help determine their scale, juvenile cobras have distinctive markings that are absent in this one, indicating that it's an adult.

"You can see little white lines on the cobra in the picture, on the part that's trailing out on the path," he said. Those white marks are remnants of the ring pattern found in juveniles, which is much brighter when they're young, Burbrink explained.

And the python appears to be a close match in size to its king cobra opponent, he added.

But what happened here? It's difficult to say for sure from a single photo, though the tangle probably started when the cobra attacked the python as prey, Shab Mohammadi, a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told Live Science in an email.

"King cobras feed almost exclusively on other snakes," Mohammadi said, whereas reticulated pythons typically eat mammals or birds.

"The python was most likely attempting to defend itself," she said.

No escape

Once attacked, the python may have tried to slither away, but a slow-moving python would have had a tough time evading the much-speedier cobra, Burbrink said.

Cobras incapacitate their prey with venomous bites, injecting a neurotoxin cocktail that paralyzes respiratory muscles — and they don't necessarily wait until their prey is dead before swallowing it, Burbrink told Live Science. The cobra's eagerness may have led to its downfall — perhaps it bit the python and then strayed a little too close while waiting for it to succumb, he suggested.

And the python didn't give up without a fight. Its powerful constriction appears to have trapped and killed the cobra, even as the python died from the cobra's venom.

"All constrictor snakes use the same general strategy for constricting," Mohammadi said. "They squeeze their prey, and each time the prey breathes out, they squeeze more, giving the prey less volume to breath back in. Eventually, the prey suffocates."

Pythons' deadly squeezing also obstructs the flow of blood in their prey's body, which can kill much more quickly than suffocation, Live Science previously reported.

In the image, blood is visible on the cobra's maw, perhaps from the python's wound or from an injury to the cobra's mouth that happened during the tussle, Burbrink said. How long the struggle may have lasted would have depended on the amount and potency of the venom delivered by the cobra, which is impossible to guess from a photo, he said.

"But it seems like it worked," he added.

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.