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The King Cobra

(Ophioghagus hannah)

by Jay Sharp

Cobra

Long, graceful, powerful and deadly, the appropriately named king cobra, of southeastern Asia, holds an almost exalted position atop the hierarchy of the venomous snakes of the world.

King Cobra Characteristics

The king cobra, if challenged, responds by aggressively raising the forward third of its body, with its head several feet above the ground, and spreading the iconic hood around its neck. It issues a distinctive hiss, which sounds more like a snarl than a typical reptilian hiss. Confronted eye to eye, the king cobra poses an intimidating threat.

 

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  • Size and Weight: The mature king cobra averages about 13 feet in length, but, says National Geographic, it may reach 18 feet, making it the longest venomous snake in the world. A relatively slender snake, it typically weighs some 15 to 20 pounds. (By comparison, a reticulated python -- a thick-bodied snake -- may weigh several times more than a king cobra of the same length.) Unlike most snake species, the male king cobra is somewhat larger and heavier than the female.

  • Head and Hood: The snake has a roughly wedge-shaped head, broad and flattened. It has two half-inch-long, fixed fangs, which it uses like hypodermic syringes to deliver venom from salivary glands that lie behind its eyes. Like other snakes, it has a forked tongue that it uses to detect scent particles in the air and convey them to a sensory receptor (called a Jacobson's Organ, located in the roof of the mouth). It has jaws hinged with ligaments that stretch like rubber bands, allowing the snake to open its mouth wide enough to swallow prey thicker than itself. Its hood, which it flares when agitated, spreads across extended cervical ribs that open loose skin, much like an umbrella.

  • Body and Color: The king cobra's body -- covered with glistening scales that almost look burnished -- varies in color and patterning, depending on location and habitat. Its back may range from tan to brown to black to olive green, and its belly, from cream-colored to a pale yellow. It sheds, or molts, several times a year, as it grows, gaining not only a new skin but new eye caps as well.

  • Senses: Although the snake has no external ears, it "hears" by sensing vibrations that ripple through its skin, resonating through its skull to an inner ear drum. It "smells" with its forked tongue and Jacobson's organ, which allow it to detect and track prey. It sees well, with eyesight able to detect potential prey or threats more than 100 yards away.

  • Venom: The king cobra's venom -- a neuro- and cardiotoxic stew of polypeptide, proteins and other compounds -- affects a victim's central nervous system, triggering intense pain, swelling, elevated blood pressure, blurred vision, paralysis, unconsciousness and, ultimately, death. Even in the small volumes (up to two tenths of a fluid ounce) injected by the snake when it bites, the venom is so toxic that it can swiftly kill even the largest animals.

  • Subspecies: Occurring both on mainland and islands across southeastern Asia, the king cobra may have evolved into several different subspecies, although naturalists have yet to fully define the taxonomic classification for the snake, according to the Philadelphia Zoo.


Distribution, Habitat and Diet

Distributed across southeast Asia, from India eastward to southern China and southward to the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, the king cobra -- a facile climber and swimmer -- favors densely forested habitats with lakes, ponds and streams. It preys primarily on other snakes, both non-venomous and venomous. If its preferred prey runs scarce, the king cobra will feed on smaller vertebrates, including reptiles, birds and rodents. After a large meal, the snake, which has a low metabolic rate, can live for months before it must eat again.

Behavior and Life Cycle

The king cobra, which matures sexually at about five or six years of age, starts its breeding season in January, following a molt. Through her molt, the female releases pheromones, which attract males. The male may fight, or "neck wrestle," with another male for breeding rights. The winner courts the female by stroking her with his head. In breeding, the two entwine their bodies, often maintaining their snaky embrace for hours and sometimes, for days, until he has delivered his sperm and fertilized her eggs.

About eight weeks later, the female lays several dozen eggs in a nest that she has fashioned from twig and leaves--the only species of snake known to make a nest! While standing a ferociously protective guard, she covers her eggs, called a "clutch," with leaves, said the San Diego Zoo, and she incubates them for the next 10 to 11 weeks, until they hatch. Her matronly duty now complete, she abandons her newborn, possibly to avoid the temptation of eating them.

The king cobra hatchling -- glossy black with yellow bands, 15 to 20 inches in length, and about 1/2 inch in width -- is born with a full charge of venom, making it immediately able to start fending for itself. It survives the first days of its life with nourishment from an egg yolk in its stomach. After it molts for the first time, about a week and a half after hatching, it takes to the hunt, beginning its life as a formidable predator. It can expect to live for about 20 years.

Snake Charmers

The king cobra has long been favored by the snake charmers of southeastern Asia. It sways menacingly, not to the sound and rhythm of the music, but to the movement and shape of the snake charmer's flute. Supposedly, it cannot deliver a fatal bite because the snake charmer is -- he believes -- protected by a tattoo bearing ink that contains the cobra's venom.

The King Cobra's Perils

The snake's eggs and the newborn hatchlings may fall prey to giant centipedes, army ants or a few animals, but other than man, the adult king cobra faces few consequential predators, one being the swift, nimble and thick-coated mongoose. The snake sometimes dies at the hands of man, who kills it because of its fearsome reputation and its ostensible medicinal value. Further, its population has declined in some parts of its range because of habitat destruction. At this time, it faces no danger of becoming extinct, but it is protected under an international agreement prohibiting wildlife and plant trade that would threaten the existence of designated species.

Interesting Facts

  • The king cobra's genus name, Ophiophagus, means "snake eater."

  • The king cobra's taxonomic family, the Elapidae, has 200 species across the world, including the two species of coral snake in the United States.

  • After breeding, the female king cobra can hoard the male's sperm for several years, using the store to impregnate herself for succeeding seasons.

  • The king cobra, contrary to myth, does not "spit" its venom at a potential enemy. Several species of cobra do, however, project their venom in a fine spray, accurately, for several feet. If it gets into the eyes, it can cause blindness.

  • Synthetic king cobra venom, says National Geographic, is used in pain relievers and arthritis medications.

  • Like other snakes, the king cobra cannot chew its prey. Rather, it swallows prey whole and relies on very strong stomach acids to digest its meal.

  • A large king cobra, raising its body, spreading its hood and issuing its snarl, can stop an adult elephant in its tracks.

  • After completing its performance for a Burmese snake charmer, often a woman, it often receives an appreciative kiss on the top of its head.

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