Cobra – for many, this word alone conjures up an image in the mind’s eye of a snake standing proudly with a hood spread wide. It may even arouse an array of emotion from reverence to fear to respect, love and even hate.
And although these iconic snakes are quite familiar to us, there is still very little known about them. Many so-called cobra snake facts are nothing more than hearsay.
There is some confusion/ debate around what a cobra snake actually is - what characteristics allow us to call some snakes cobras and not others?
Cobra de capelo translated from Portuguese means “snake with hood” a term which loosely places a variety of snakes into the cobra bracket.
By this definition snakes like the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah), the rinkhals ( Hemachatus haemachatus) and the Cape coral snake (Aspidelaps lubricus) are all cobras.
Yes you say, of course they are!
But what about the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) then? Look closely – it also has the ability to spread a small hood. Is it a cobra?
Not if you take the genetic road.
There are many snakes which look similar to cobras but don’t belong in the same group – genetically speaking. Common names often cause confusion; true cobras belong to the genus Naja and currently comprise of about 28 species (excluding subspecies) worldwide.
To learn more about this fascinating genus of snakes, I have put together this article to dispel some myths and set the cobra snake facts straight. I hope you learn something new, I certainly did.
I love the true cobras even more now!
Snakes have appeared strongly in the lore of many cultures as symbols of strength, creativity, cosmic energy and of creation itself. But no snake features more prominently than the iconic cobra.
In Egypt the cobra goddess Wadjet, the celestial serpent, was seen as the giver of food and immortality and at an even deeper level may have represented Mother Earth; the symbol, known as Uraeus, is a stylised upright version of the Egyptian cobra Naja haje ( see table at the end of this post) which was also indicated in the suicidal death of Cleopatra and represents royalty, deity and divine authority.
In Hinduism Shiva is depicted meditating with a cobra around his neck and Vishnu rests on the cosmic cobra Ananta while dreaming the universe into being; in Buddhism the image of a five-headed cobra or Naga is often seen sheltering the Buddha as he attained enlightenment and in Tibet, cobras symbolise the rainbow as a connecting link between heaven and earth.
Apart from the negative association that Christianity has with snakes it is difficult to find others with similar overtones.
If we were to take a leaf from the books of ancient cultures, which appear to have been far more connected with nature, do you think that there would be less persecution of snakes? Leave your comments at the end of this post.
True Cobras: The Genus Naja
The King Cobra is not a true cobra!
Excluding the associated subspecies there are currently 28 species of snake belonging to the genus Naja. This may came as a surprise to many of you but the King Cobra is taxonomically speaking no more of a cobra than is a black mamba.
They share some common traits and belong to the same family of non-mobile, hollow, front fanged snakes we know as the Elapidae, but differ in a number of ways – although the details are beyond the scope of this article.
If it doesn’t belong to the genus Naja, then it’s not a true cobra.
All cobras have the ability of raising the front parts of their body while simultaneously flaring the ribs in their neck to display what we commonly call a ‘hood’.
They have smooth scales, round pupils and show great colour variation within and between the species. Colours range from butter yellow, to red, to black to mottled and banded varieties and almost everything in between (for examples of each species see table at the end of this post).
Many of the species can reach lengths of 2 m (6.0 ft.); the largest of which, the forest cobra (N. melanoleuca), has been recorded at a whopping 3.1 m (10 ft.). At 2.7 m (8.9 ft), Ashe’s spitting cobra (N. ashei) is the largest spitting cobra in the world.
Like all elapids, cobras have hollow fangs fixed to their top jaw (maxilla) at the front of their mouth. In some species the fangs have been expertly modified to ‘spit’ venom (keep reading to see how).
All the true cobras are oviparous or egg laying.
Habitat & Distribution
Cobras can be found across most of Africa and in many parts of Asia. They inhabit a range of habitat types including desert, forest, fynbos, grassland, thicket and cultivated areas.
Some species like the forest cobra are habitat specialists and occupy specific niches while others like the Indian cobra are habitat generalists and occur across a range habitat types.
Hunting for a Catholic Diet
Most cobras are typical generalists when it comes to food and make a living by being opportunistic hunters. If you are keen to survive in as large an area as possible then having the ability to eat whatever is put in front of you makes sense.
Most cobras hunt at dawn or dusk although some species are known to forage during the heat of the day. Cobras, like other snakes, can go for days or even months without feeding – depending on the size of their last meal and their recent activity.
Their excellent ability of conserving energy coupled with a very slow metabolism makes this possible.
Although some species of cobra show more specialisation in their preferred diets, most species are opportunists and will take whatever food is available including small mammals, birds, lizards, amphibians, other snakes, eggs and even carrion – yes some species, like the Cape cobra, have been known to scavenge roadkill!
To humans cobras may seem so big and bad that it is difficult to imagine that anything could eat such a deadly animal. The reality is that life is tough on a snake and security from predators is not a sure thing.
The most well-known snake enemy is the mongoose – its lightning speed (watch the video to see this) allows it to quickly bite the back of a cobra’s neck and head before it can defend itself.
Other enemies include birds of prey and other snakes. It’s a snake eat snake world for a cobra.
It should come as no surprise though, that a cobra’s biggest enemy is man.
Cobras are highly venomous snakes and all members of the genus Naja are potentially deadly. Many species possess potent neurotoxic venom. Neurotoxins attack the nervous system leading to the paralysis of the respiratory system if untreated.
As with all snake venoms however, the cocktail is a varied mix and may contain a significant amount of cytotoxins.
In the case of the spitting cobras like Naja mossambica and Naja nigricincta for example, the venom mix becomes predominantly cytotoxic which attacks body tissue cells and causes severe pain, swelling and if left untreated, necrosis (death of cells and tissue) may set in.
It might be difficult to believe but cobras, like all snakes, are timid and shy. A snake’s first strategy for evading me or you is to escape into the nearest form of cover and limit the chance of confrontation.
Firstly no cobra is going to try and eat a person – we’re too big – so biting us for food is not an
option. Secondly, even if a snake was to bite something much, much bigger than itself the chances of it escaping the encounter are small when a person can easily retaliate with a stick or other solid object.
So…the first line of defence is to flee. This is why we seldom see cobras, they head for cover long before we get too close. They don’t have external ears but instead respond to vibrations in the ground.
But there are times when even an alert cobra gets surprised by an unsuspecting person or other large animal. When this happens the first thing you’ll often see is the cobra snake spread a hood; an impressive display of sign language which, if you read between the lines, clearly states “I’m frightened but don’t test me, I will defend myself if you get too close!”
Cobras will often hiss as well and when used in combination with the hood they make for an unforgettable display.
Just like when a rattlesnake rattles its tail, hooding and hissing is not a sign of aggression. These are warning signs intended to be seen and heard at a safe distance.
Some snakes, referred to as “spitting cobras” have modified their front fangs in such a way that they are able to eject venom out of their mouth, propelling it up to two and a half metres with amazing accuracy, into the eyes of whatever has over stepped the line of comfortable personal-snake space.
Venom in the eyes can lead to blindness from secondary infection if not washed out well with water.
Usually a cobra fang has an opening at the tip (similar to a hypodermic needle) through which venom is squeezed out when pressure is applied on the venom glands. In spitting cobras the fangs have a rifled opening allowing the venom to be sprayed or ejected outwards at angles away from the head.
The gland is squeezed at high pressure and small amount venom shoots out and deflects upwards and outwards from the floor of the fang (see video to watch this in action).
Spitting is purely a defensive strategy. They spit at something bigger and feast on something smaller.
The table below shows the 28 species of cobra currently recognised worldwide but excludes any subspecies. Ten of the 28 are spitting cobras as can been seen in the ‘common name’ column.
I hope that you have enjoyed this guide to cobra snake facts. If you have ever seen a cobra or have a favourite from the list below I’d love to hear from you! If you have a favourite don’t forget to tell us why