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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.

“Cobras occur throughout Africa, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia,” said
Sara Viernum, a herpetologist based in Madison, Wisconsin. The word comes from the
Portuguese cobra de capello, which means "hooded snake."

There is some disagreement 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 according to Viernum, often “the name cobra references several
species of snakes, most of which are in the venomous snake family Elapidae. Elpididae includes
other snakes like coral snakes, kraits and mambas.” Many of these snakes either possess hoods or
the ability to raise the upper part of their body.

Cobra characteristics
Cobras are Elapids, a type of poisonous snake with hollow fangs fixed to the top jaw at the front
of the mouth. These snakes cannot hold their fangs down on prey so they inject venom through
their fangs, according to the San Diego Zoo. 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). According to Cape
Snake Conservation, 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).

“The most well-known distinctive physical characteristic of cobras is their hood,” said Viernum.
“Hooding occurs when the snake spreads out its neck ribs forming a flattened, widened section
of its body near the head.” This creates a stunning, and threatening, spectacle.

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
According to Cobras by Sylvia A. Johnson (Lerner, 2006), cobras typically live in hot, tropical
areas but are also found in savannahs, grasslands, forests and farming areas in Africa and
Southern Asia. They like to spend time underground, under rocks and in trees.

“The most distinctive behavioral characteristics of cobras are their defensive displays,” said
Viernum. “These include hooding, hissing, and raising the upper portion of their bodies to stand
erect. Most cobras can stand as tall as a third of their body length.” In addition to signaling a
willingness to attack, this behavior helps them search for food. Cobras may hiss loudly at
predators and other threats, and some species also spit. “Spitting cobras are able to project
venom from their fangs towards their perceived predators,” said Viernum.

Cobras reproduce by laying eggs. Females typically lay 20 to 40 eggs at a time, which incubate
between 60 and 80 days. According to India’s SnakeWorld, 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. According to, 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. According to
the San Diego Zoo, 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
“Cobra bites can be fatal, especially if left untreated,” said Viernum. Fortunately, antivenin is
available and sometimes lives can also be saved with the use of an artificial respirator. Viernum
explained cobras’ neurotoxic venom’s effects: “Like coral snakes, cobras have potent neurotoxic
venom, which acts on the nervous system. Symptoms from a neurotoxic cobra bite can include
problems with vision, difficulty swallowing and speaking, skeletal muscle weakness, difficulty
breathing, respiratory failure, vomiting, abdominal pain, necrosis, and anticoagulation.”
[Related: 7 Shocking Snake Stories]

According to the University of Michigan, human victims may stop breathing just 30 minutes
after being bitten by a cobra.
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). According to the
American Museum of Natural History, 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.

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

According to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), the taxonomy of "true"
cobras is:

 Kingdom: Animalia
 Subkingdom: Bilateria
 Infrakingdom: Deuterostomia
 Phylum: Chordata
 Subphylum: Vertebrata
 Infraphylum: Gnathostomata
 Superclass: Tetrapoda
 Class: Reptilia
 Order: Squamata
 Suborder: Serpentes
 Infraorder: Alethinophidia
 Family: Elapidae
 Genus: Naja
 Species: 20, including Naja melanoleuca (forest cobra), Naja ashei (Ashe's spitting
cobra), Naja mossambica (Mozambique cobra), Naja naja (Indian cobra)

King cobra
The king cobra is an example of a snake with "cobra" in its name, but it is not a member of the
Naja genus. The king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is the only member of its genus.

“The king cobra is the longest species of venomous snake in the world,” said Viernum. Though
they can reach lengths of up to 18 feet, Viernum said, their average length is 10 to 13 feet.
Nevertheless, when they rear up the front third of their body under threat, the “stance can be
quite high.” An especially long snake could be as tall as a person, meaning that an angry king
cobra could literally look you in the eye.

National Geographic compares their warning hiss to a growing dog. 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. According to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology’s Animal Diversity
Web (ADW), nesting females may attack without provocation.

King cobras reside in trees, on land and in water, and are found in the rain forests, mangrove
swamps, forests, and grasslands of southern China and Southeast Asia, according to the BBC.
Their coloring varies from region to region.

According to National Geographic, 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.