The King Cobra is dreaded for its poisonous and lethal bites. It is the only snake to strike a ‘hood’ posture. It is also unique among snakes for its innate intelligence.
The scientific name of king cobras is Ophiophagus Hannah. King cobras can grow up to 18 feet long, making them the longest venomous snakes in the world. They have short, hollow fangs, which measure less than a half an inch. A king cobra is uniformly olive, brown, or green in color.
The king cobra is one of the snakes that are ophiophagur, i.e. they prey on other snakes such as pythons and smaller members of its own species. Its venom affects the nervous system and hence has neurotoxic properties. Their venom is not the most potent among venomous snakes, but the amount of neurotoxin they can deliver in a single bite is enough to kill 20 people, or even an elephant. King cobras are basically shy and will avoid humans whenever possible, but they are fiercely aggressive when cornered. A king cobra will usually protect itself by biting, and spitting venom.
When is excited or scared, a king cobra will spread the lose skin on its neck into a ‘hood’. There are distinct spots on the hood that look like eyes; it is an effective camouflage technique that confuses the prey and hence makes it vulnerable to attack. Juvenile king cobras shed skin every month, while adult ones shed their skin 4 to 6 times a year.
King cobras generally breed from January to April. A female king cobra lays 20 to 50 eggs in a nest she constructs from leaves and sticks. The female guards the nest and after 65 to 80 days the eggs hatch. Newborns measure 18 to 20 inches in length and possess bright marks. Juveniles are jet-black in color and have white or yellow crossbars on the body and four crossbars on the head.
King cobras use their forked tongues to pick up signals of smell and transfer them to a sensory receptor located at the roof of the mouth. Whenever it picks up the scent of ‘food (i.e. a prey), the snake will flick its tongue to detect the prey’s direction. King cobras hunt at all times of day, although it is rarely seen at night, leading some to wrongly classify it as a diurnal species. After a large meal it can live for many months without another due to an extremely slow metabolic rate.
Influence in Human Culture
King cobras can live up to 20 years or more in captivity. King cobras are more intelligent than true cobras, and can differentiate caretakers from strangers. The king cobra is worshiped in India, especially on the festive occasion of ‘Nag Panchami’ and is depicted in sculptures on temple walls and celebrated in myths and legends. The venom of king cobras has a paralyzing effect on the nerves and is useful in developing the painkillers used to treat arthritis patients.
Habitat of King Cobras
It is found in Burma, China, India, Malaysia, Philippines, South Africa and Thailand. The largest king cobras have been found in peninsular Malaysia. They are found near streams in both dense and open forests, as well as bamboo stands and agricultural areas; for instance, tea plantations. They also inhabit tropical mangrove swamps. In Southern India, herpetologist Romulus Whitaker has set up the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station and plans to establish the world’s first king cobra sanctuary.
King cobras inhabit the endangered rain forests of the Western Ghats. It has also been found in mountainous regions up to 6,500 feet above the sea level. The greatest threat to the survival of king cobras has been from human encroachment. The habitat loss due to anthropogenic effects of development has resulted in dwindling numbers of the snake.
Though the snake is still present in considerable numbers, there is a pressing need to conserve this unique and magnificent species. Preservation of their natural habitats is the best method to save it. It is too good a natural treasure for mankind to lose.