These Giant Snakes Have Mystique and Elegance – And a Fatal Bite

cobra snake

Story at-a-glance -

  • Cobras are known for their ability to stretch their necks into “hoods,” but not all snakes with this ability are cobras
  • The practice of “snake charming” typically involves cobras, but this practice is often viewed as inhumane
  • Cobras’ greatest natural enemies are the mongoose, certain other snakes and humans, who have hunted cobras for food and medicinal purposes

By Dr. Becker

Cobra snakes are surrounded by mystique and elegance, along with a healthy dose of respect and, rightfully, fear. Their name comes from the Portuguese word “cobra de capello,” which means “hooded snake.”1

References to cobras exist in ancient art and literature from cultures around the world, including Egypt, India, Africa and Asia. It is sometimes said that the Egyptian queen Cleopatra used an Egyptian cobra to commit suicide, while cobras have been used as religious icons in Egypt, as well as in Hinduism and Buddhism.2

While most people assume that any snake with a “hood” is a cobra, this is not the case. All cobras can stretch the ribs in their neck, which allows their skin to form the characteristic hood. However, all snakes able to do this are not cobras.

Even the king cobra is not a true cobra, but rather belongs to the genus Ophiophagus. “True” cobras, of which there are 28 known species, are members of the genus Naja.

Modern-Day “Snake Charmers” Still Exist

The practice of snake charming has existed since ancient times in India and Africa, and involves a snake charmer playing a flute to “hypnotize” a venomous snake (typically a cobra) and make it dance. According to Live Science:3

“…the cobras cannot actually hear the music (being deaf to ambient noise [they hear by sensing ground vibrations]). They are enticed by the shape and movement of the flute.”

Even today, “snake charmers” in some regions still “call” cobra snakes out of their baskets… a skill that is used to earn a living. However, the practice has been called inhumane, in part because some snake charmers will thread the snake’s mouth shut so it cannot bite.

In some areas, laws have been put into place banning the ownership of snakes and aiming to prevent exploitation and animal cruelty.

What’s the Difference Between Male and Female Cobras?

Have you ever wondered how to tell the difference between a male and female snake? In most snakes, the female is larger than the male. However, in the case of the king cobra, which is the world’s longest poisonous snake, males are bigger.

A male king cobra may weight up to 44 pounds and grow more than 18 feet long. Female king cobras, on the other hand, tend to only grow to 12 feet long. (As for ‘true’ cobras, the largest is the forest cobra, which reaches 10 feet long, while the smallest is the Mozambique spitting cobra, which is only four feet long.)4

Also unlike most other snakes, which do not build nests, female king cobras build complex nests in which to lay their eggs. A female cobra will lay 20-30 eggs in her nest, but only one or two will make it to adulthood. Females stay with their nests for up to three months, leaving only after the eggs hatch. If threats come near, they will aggressively defend their eggs.5

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Cobras Have an Impressive Defensive Display

If a cobra feels threatened, it puts on quite a show. It will extend its hood, a process known as “hooding,” hiss and raise the upper part of its body so it’s standing upright. Some cobras also spit, which allows them to project venom toward their predators, often right into their eyes, which can cause blindness.

If a cobra strikes, the venom is injected into their prey through hollow fangs. Typically, they prey on birds, small mammals, lizards, eggs and even other snakes, hunting at dawn or dusk and following their prey until they’re ready to attack.

As for a cobra’s enemies… the mongoose represents a formidable opponent, largely because of its thick fur (which shields it from bites), speed and agility. A mongoose can quickly bite the back of a cobra’s head and overcome the snake.

Humans pose an even greater threat. Aside from habitat loss, cobras are sometimes hunted for the food trade and, particularly, for medicinal uses. In 2012, the king cobra was added to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) "Red List of Threatened Species."6 In 2014, the Chinese cobra was also added to the Red List as a vulnerable species.7

What Happens if You’re Bitten by a Cobra?

Part of the cobra’s mystique certainly comes from its highly poisonous nature. Left untreated, a cobra bite can kill a person in as little as 30 minutes. Sara Viernum, a herpetologist based in Madison, Wisconsin, told Live Science:8

“Cobra bites can be fatal, especially if left untreated… 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.”

Certain cobras, including spitting cobras, have cytotoxic venom, which can cause death of cells and tissue, severe pain and swelling. Antivenin, or antivenom, is available if you can reach medical help quickly. An artificial respirator is also potentially life-saving in the event of a cobra bite.9

If you’re intrigued by snakes, a cobra is clearly not one you want to approach. There are over 3,000 species of snakes worldwide, however, and some can become quite tame. Thinking of choosing a snake as a pet? Be sure to read these snake ownership tips first.