To me cobras have always been a source of fascination. This probably comes from watching Aladdin as a kid – that staff of Jafar’s was so creepy but so elegant at the same time. These days I don’t find cobras very creepy, but I still think they have a certain mystique about them that earns them a special place in the snake world.
The king cobra is the longest venomous snake in the world, and isn’t actually a member of the genus Naja (true cobras). Instead it belongs to its own genus, Ophiophagus, which is derived from the greek for snake-eater (they eat snakes). King cobras can be found in India, southeast Asia, and east Asia. They prefer to live in wooded areas, especially those near sources of water, such as streams or mangrove swamps.
As I mentioned, king cobras are big. They can reach lengths of over 5.5 meters, though they are more commonly 3 to 4 meters long. They are olive, tan or black coloured, with yellow bands on their bodies. The underside is paler, being either creamy or light yellow. One of the mot notable features of the cobra is its hood, which the snake uses in defensive postures, presumably to make itself look larger.
Despite its reputation as a fearsome snake, king cobras are actually quite shy, and will try and escape if confronted. Only if escape is impossible will the cobra become aggressive, which involves rearing up into a defensive position, extending its hood and emitting a low growling noise. Of course, the cobra has another defence: its venom. The venom consists mainly of neurotoxins, and can be fatal to humans. In fact, in defence king cobras have been known to kill an elephant with a single bite. That being said, cobras don’t always inject venom with every bite – in one study, over 50% of bites didn’t result in envenomation.
King cobras are unusual in the snake world for their dedication to parenting. Female cobras create a nest for their eggs and stay in it until the eggs hatch. She guards the eggs and incubates them, while male cobras stay close to the nest as well. The females are highly aggressive at this time, so don’t disturb nesting cobras! Once the eggs start hatching, the female leaves the nest so she doesn’t eat her young (a good parenting decision). The babies are 45 to 55 cm, and have venom as potent as adult cobra venom.
King cobras are formidable snakes; I’ve always admired them for it. And now that you know all about them, you can admire them too!
Cover image source: San Diego Zoo