Class: Reptilia (Reptile)
Naja (true cobras)
Ophiophagus (king cobra)
Body length: longest king cobra Ophiophagus hannah up to 18.5 feet (5.7 meters); most range from 3 to 7 feet (0.9 to 2.1 meters)
Weight: up to 20 pounds (9 kilograms), depending on species
Life span: 20 to 30 years
Incubation: 45 to 80 days, depending on species
Number of eggs laid: 12 to 60, depending on species
Length at hatch: 16 to 18 inches (40 to 45 centimeters)
Age of maturity: 4 to 6 years
Conservation status: No species are endangered but their numbers have been reduced by the loss of habitat in some parts of their range.
Some cobra species may pretend they
are dead by convulsing, then lying completely still until the
threat has passed.
Like all snakes, a cobra's jaws have two independent bones that are loosely attached to its skull. This lets the snake swallow an animal that is wider than its own head.
The sight of a large cobra reared up in a bold warning stance is known to stop elephants in their tracks.
Don't hate me because
Cobras are venomous snakes related to taipans, coral snakes, and mambas, all members of the Elapidae family. Snakes in this family cannot fold their fangs down, as vipers can, so the fangs are generally shorter. They kill their prey by injecting venom through their fangs. The venom is a neurotoxin that stops the victim's breathing and heartbeat. A cobra will only attack a human if it feels threatened. As with any venomous snake, a bite from a cobra can be deadly if not treated properly.
Wearing a hood
Cobras come in varying colors from black or dark brown to yellowish white. They have specialized muscles and ribs in the neck that can flare out when the cobra feels threatened. Cobras are able to raise their bodies up, spread the hood, and hiss loudly to scare off most threats. The deep loud hiss of a large king cobra Ophiophagus hannah alone is enough to make one's hair stand up on end! This works much the same way as the rattle of the rattlesnake works: it is a warning sign that can be seen at a safe distance. The message is, "I am big, bad, and will bite you if you come any closer!" What predator would even try to attack a cobra? The snake's biggest enemy is the mongoose, an animal quick enough to dart in and bite the back of the cobra's neck before the snake can defend itself.
The hunt is on
At dawn and dusk, hungry cobras begin to move and look for a good spot to hunt for their meal. They can go for days or even months without eating, depending on how large their last meal was. The snake's slow metabolism makes this possible. A mouse, rat, ground squirrel, or rabbit are its main prey items, but cobras may also eat amphibians, birds, lizards, other snakes, and eggs. They use their forked tongue to smell prey. The tongue moves in and out, picking up odor particles from the ground and passing them over a special smelling organ in the roof of the mouth, called the Jacobson's organ. This helps the snake sniff out its next meal. At the San Diego Zoo, the cobras are fed thawed mice and rats.
The cobra, like other venomous snakes, is lightning fast when it strikes. But it has somewhat smaller fangs, so it may strike and chew rather than strike and release, or it may strike several times until the venom has done its job.
No need for mom
Cobra females produce a clutch of eggs each year and usually stay nearby to guard the eggs until they hatch. The baby cobra, like all snakes, is called a hatchling. The hatchling is able to take care of itself from the start and can spread its hood and strike on the same day it hatches. A large yolk sac remains in the hatchling's stomach to give it nourishment for up to two weeks before it needs to find food on its own.
Hail to the king!
The king cobra may grow to be 18.5 feet (5.7 meters) long, making it the largest venomous snake in the world. It is found throughout India, southern China, and Southeast Asia. The king cobra usually eats other snakes, even venomous ones! If it feels threatened, the king cobra will flare its hood, make a high-pitched hiss, and rear itself up. How high? The king cobra can raise itself up to one-third of its body length. In some cases, this can make the cobra taller than an average man!
Most cobras are known to protect their eggs after laying, but the mother king cobra takes it a step further. Before she lays her eggs she builds a nest with leaves, using her body and head to move things. She will then lay her eggs, cover them with leaves, and place herself on top to incubate them until they hatch.
Sssay it, don't ssspray it
"Spitting cobra" refers to any one of several species of cobras that have the ability to spit or spray venom from their fangs when defending themselves. Some include the red spitting cobra Naja pallida, Mosambique spitting cobra Naja mossambica, and the black-necked spitting cobra Naja nigricollis. The venom, although not generally fatal on contact, can cause permanent blindness if it gets into the eye and/or skin scarring if left untreated.
Despite their name, these snakes don't actually spit their venom. They spray the venom by squeezing their muscles on the venom glands, forcing the venom out of front openings in the fangs. When cornered, some species can "spit" their venom up to a distance of 6.5 feet (2 meters). Four out of seven species of cobras found in Africa and seven out of nine species found in Asia can spit. While this is typically their form of defense, all spitting cobras are also able to deliver venom through a bite.
The keepers at the San Diego Zoo wear a protective shield, which covers the head and protects the eyes, when working with these snakes. Sometimes, a keeper will remove the shield after cleaning the snake's exhibit and find a fine coating of venom on the face plate, even though the cobra did not hood or strike!
See spot slither
The Indian cobra, or spectacled cobra Naja naja, is native to India. It has a unique pattern on the back of its hood: two circular patterns connected by a curved line that looks like the cobra is wearing glasses, or spectacles. These markings are meant to look like eyes and perhaps fool a potential enemy. You're probably familiar with this cobra: it's the snake used by snake charmers, although the practice of snake charming in India has been banned since 1991 by a wildlife protection act. It is an important predator species, consuming large numbers of rats. And its venom components have been used in medical research for drugs that can benefit mankind.
In India, the spectacled cobra is much respected and feared, even having its own place in Hindu mythology as a powerful deity. The monocle cobra Naja kaouthia also has patterns on the back of its hood, but with one circular "eyepiece," or "monocle," instead of two!
Walk like an Egyptian
The Egyptian cobra Naja haje is native to the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East and is one of the largest and most common cobras in Africa. This species is responsible for many deaths. It is the largest of all the Naja species, with a maximum length of 9.8 feet (3 meters). The Egyptian cobra's venom is extremly toxic. Its bite can cause a quick death, and it is considered by many to be the serpent used by Cleopatra to commit suicide.