Wednesday, February 20, 2013


The first snake I am going to tell you about during this Year of the Snake is the king cobra, which is the longest and most poisonous snake in the whole world.  The average length of a king cobra is 12 feet, but sometimes they get to be as long as 18 feet.  If you stood an 18-foot king cobra on end, it would be as tall as a giraffe!

King Cobra in captivity.  Dr. Aithal's Snake park, Puttur.
Photo:  Hari Prasad

There are 12 types of snakes that are called cobras, and they all spread their necks or "hoods" when they feel threatened.  The word cobra comes from the Portuguese cobra de capelo, which means "hooded snake."  Cobras are not really very aggressive, and if they can, they will just try to get away from anything that scares them.  But if they are startled or cornered, they hiss and lift the front third of their bodies straight up off the ground.  They flatten the long ribs of their necks, and this pushes out the skin to form a hood.  The idea is to scare off any predators, and it's a very good idea, if you ask me.

If a 15' king cobra raises 1/3 of its body, it is almost as tall as a person.

King cobras live in the forests of Southeast Asia, India, the Philippines, and Indonesia.  They are considered to be VULNERABLE, because of the loss of habitat in some areas, but they are not in danger of extinction or anything like that.  In the wild, king cobras usually live an average of 20 years.

King cobra distribution map by Mad Max;
based on a National Geographic map

The skin of king cobras can be olive-green, tan, or black.  There are faint pale yellow cross bands down the length of the body, and the belly is cream or pale yellow.  An adult snake's head can be almost as big as a human hand.  Cobras are able to move quickly, even though they are large in size.  Their striking distance is 7 or 8 feet (2.5 m), which means that sometimes people think they are a safe distance from the snake, but really they are not.

The food that king cobras most like to eat is other snakes, especially rat snakes and small pythons.  But if they can't find their favorite food, they might eat lizards, small mammals, birds, eggs, or frogs instead.  When cobras go out hunting, they are able to "sniff" the air by capturing scent particles with their forked tongues and then moving the particles to the Jacobson's organ in the roof of their mouths.  King cobras also have very good eyesight, and they can see prey moving almost 330 feet (100 m) away.

3D model 

King cobras have short, fixed fangs that they use to inject about 600 mg of venom per bite.  This venom acts very quickly, and it attacks the victim's central nervous system.  If you are bitten by a king cobra, you will feel severe pain, blurred vision, vertigo, drowsiness, and paralysis.  Pretty soon, your heart, lungs, and kidneys start to fail.  Then you go into a coma and die.

King cobra eating a rat

About 50% to 60% of people who are bitten by king cobras die if they don't get treated.  The venom is so strong that it only takes beetween 15 and 30 minutes to kill someone.  There are two places that make antivenom for cobra bites.  One is the Red Cross in Thailand, and the other is the Central Research Institute in India, but neither makes very much of it.  In Thailand, a mixture of alcohol and ground turmeric root has been used sometimes to help people survive a cobra bite.

What can this man be thinking?

The good news is that king cobra bites are not common.  The snake mostly likes to do its own thing, far away from where people live.  If it sees something alarming, it will generally try to flee.  The main predators of the king cobra are the mongoose and the kite.  The mongoose is not affected by the toxin in the snake's bite, so that's a nice advantage.  But sometimes a king cobra can scare off a mongoose with its big, hooded display.

Cobra and mongoose

As soon as they catch a nice, fresh meal, cobras start eating it.  There is no reason to wait for it to die first.  Snakes don't have teeth, they just have fangs, so they cannot chew their food.  They have to swallow it whole.  Luckily, snake jaws are designed just for this purpose.  The ligaments that connect the lower jaw to the upper one are very flexible, so the jaws can move independently.  A snake can just open its mouth really, really wide and start swallowing.  Snakes can even swallow things are are much larger than their heads.  After it has swallowed a big, yummy meal, a king cobra probably won't need to eat again for quite awhile, like maybe several months.  This is because it has a slow metabolism, and so digesting all that food takes a really long time.

Female king cobras (who I think should be called "queen cobras," but nobody asked me) make better moms than most snakes do.  Usually snake moms just lay their eggs someplace, and then they go off and abandon them.  But a king cobra mother makes a nice mound and lays her 20 to 40 eggs inside it, so that they will stay warm.  After that, she sticks around and fiercely guards the nest until the babies hatch out, which takes between 60 and 90 days.  But as soon as the eggs start hatching, the mama snake leaves, because her instinct tells her to go find food someplace else and not eat her babies.

"Hey guys, where did Mom go?"

In Myanmar, king cobras are often used by female snake charmers.  Usually, the charmer has three pictogram tattoos, and the ink for these tattoos is mixed with snake venom.  The charmer believes that the tattoos will protect her from the cobra, and at the end of each performance, she kisses the cobra on the top of its head.


In Nepal, India, and other South Asian countries, cobras are associated with two Hindu gods, Shiva and Vishnu.  Shiva, who is a warrior and a "destroyer," wears a cobra around his neck.

Vishnu has a 5-headed cobra named Kaliya to shield him from the sun.

Personally, I think it's fine for all these snake charmers and gods to be hanging out with cobras, but I plan to stay a very long distance away from any snakes that are poisonous, starting with king cobras!


  1. The most surprising fact to me is their favorite food is other snakes. I wouldn't have guessed that.
    Love, AP

    1. Yeah, that's kind of surprising, but if you have a long, winding stomach, it's probably best to eat long, winding food that fits in it! LOL

  2. I love your blog, Piper! Have you ever read or seen "Rikki Tikki Tavi" by Rudyard Kipling? The written story is better than the movie, of course, but the film animation is by Chuck Jones, so you can't go wrong! (I came across my old VHS tape of it this weekend. I don't have a VCR anymore, so I ordered the DVD.)

    1. My mom told me that she read "Rikki Tikki Tavi" a long, long time ago when she was in school, but she doesn't really remember anything about the story now (except that it had a mongoose in it). Of course, that was before I was even born, or before a lot of my ancestors were even born, so I was not around when Mom read that story.

    2. Oh, Piper! Tell your mom that she should run to the library and check it out. The story is by Rudyard Kipling; the heroic Rikki Tikki Tavi is saved by a little boy in India, and he repays the family for their kindness by guarding their home from snakes. It is a charming tale! (Although not as charming a tail as your curly one, of course.)

  3. hey piper! i have read the story "Rikki Tikki Tavi" it is so awsom and how that mongoos fought the 2 king cobras and saved the family too it was amazing but my fovort part is when "Rikki Tikki" destoryd the king cobras egges

    1. "Rikki Tikki Tavi" is a very good story! I agree with you about that. My mom had not read it for a long time because she read it in school when she was just a girl. So she and I found a copy of the story and we read it. I liked the eggs part, too.