The King cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is probably best known as the species of choice for the South Asia snake charmers. Even though cobras can hear, they are actually deaf to all ambient noises instead, they sense the ground vibrations.
The snake charmer's flute entices the cobra by its shape and movement, not by the music or sound it produces.
It seems just a bit unfair and menacing that the King Cobra, the snake that can and will literally "stand up" and look a full-grown human in the eyes would also be among those with some of the most potent venom on the planet, but that's what the famous King Cobra is all about.
King cobras live in Southeast Asia mainly in the plains and rainforests of India where they are abundant and revered in some places, southern China, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Their coloring can vary greatly from region to region, from blackish brown with white and ivory in China to yellow and black in India.
The King cobra can reach up to 18 feet (5.5 meters) in length, making them the longest of all venomous snakes. It is a relatively slender snake, it will typically weigh between 15 to 20 pounds but can reach up to 44 pounds (20 kg).
Male snakes are bigger and thicker than the females, they have a life expectancy of around 20 years. They feel comfortable both in the trees, on land, and in water and are both good climbers and swimmers.
When confronted or harassed, they will raise up to one-third of their body straight off the ground and will still be able to move forward to attack. They will also show off their iconic hoods and emit a loud bone-chilling hiss that resembles almost a growling dog.
Fortunately, the King Cobra snake is shy by nature and will avoid humans at all costs, whenever possible, but they are notably aggressive when cornered. This is why many other venomous snakes within their range are responsible for far more fatal snake bites, most of them caused by a group called the big four.
The king cobra, just like other snakes, "smells" the air using its forked tongue picking up the scent particles left by prey animals. Then it transfers these particles to the Jacobson’s Organ, located in its mouth, which enables the snake to track prey. They also possess an excellent eyesight enabling them to detect moving prey from almost 300 feet (100 m) away.
Subspecies / Taxonomy
Despite the fact that their common name contains the word "cobra", this type of snake is not a "true cobra" which belong to the Naja genus. The king cobra is also sometimes known as the hamadryad.
Its species specific "Hannah" scientific name, reflects it's arboreal habits, derives from the Greek mythology referring to the tree dwelling nymphs with the same name. King cobras belong to monotypic genus Ophiophagus in the family Elapidae. The Danish naturalist Theodore Edward Cantor first described the king cobra species in 1836.
Venom / Bite
Their fangs aren't the largest measuring around 1/2 inch (12 mm) far from those of the Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) that may reach up to 2 inches in length.
Their venom is not the most potent among venomous snakes, including some that share its habitat like the Indian Cobra. But the sheer amount of neurotoxin they deliver in a single bite, up to 0.2 ounces (seven milliliters) of a fluid, is enough to kill 20 people or even an elephant.
But not all bites will result in envenomation, sometimes they do deliver what is known as a dry bite, where the snake doesn't inject any venom in the victim.
Its venom is designed to attack the victim nervous system. A king cobra bite causes instant pain, vertigo, blurred vision and paralysis and soon after the respiratory and cardiovascular system will fail inducing coma and result in death.
Diet / Feeding
The species scientific name, "Ophiophagus" literally means "snake eater", so the basic food of the King Cobra as it name suggests are other snakes both venomous and non-venomous.
However, if the opportunity arises amphibians, rodents, small mammals, other reptiles such as the Asian water monitor (Varanus salvator). But birds or their eggs are also part of their diet. Because of their extremely slow metabolism after ingesting a large prey they can go months without feeding again.
The species mating season runs from January to April, at that time the female and male will perform a nuptial dance in which they face each other with their heads held high. This is the only snake species in the world that builds a nest for their eggs, made out of leaves, grass and thin branches.
They will guard the nest ferociously until their hatchlings emerge. The female lays an average of 24 eggs and will remain coiled around the eggs until they hatch, which may take between 60 to 80 days.
The newly born King cobras average about 18 to 22 inches (45-55 cm) in length, and their venom is as potent as that of an adult snake. The hatchlings are fully independent from birth and are capable of capturing prey as large as a rat.
Conservation / Threats
The King Cobra is listed by the IUCN as a "Vulnerable species", they are also listed in CITES Appendix II. Despite their wide distribution their population in the wild is declining and in many areas it as experienced declines of over 80% in 10 years.
The exception is Thailand, where it is protected and in suitable habitat, there is no evidence of declining population numbers. In India they are also protected under Schedule II of Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and anyone found guilty of killing a King cobra may face jail time of up to 6 years.
The main threats to the King cobra survival include loss of habitat due to deforestation for agricultural expansion and logging but also harvesting for their meat and skin, exotic pet trade and the use in traditional medicine.
There are some protected areas within their range, which probably provide only a small protection from the high harvesting pressure.
Did You Know?
The Mojave rattlesnake venom is considered the most toxic of any rattlesnake because of their "Mojave toxin".