5. Physical Description
The king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is the longest venomous snake in the world. The snake, the only member of the Ophiophagus genus, is associated with numerous legends and mythological tales of Hinduism. The king cobra attains a length of about 9.8 to 13 feet and weighs around 6 kilograms. The king cobras have an olive green, black, or tan colored dorsal surface with narrow, yellow bands. Their undersides are pale yellow to cream in color. The snakes have bulky heads, highly expandable jaws, and two short, fixed fangs that inject venom into the prey or attacker. The snakes are sexually dimorphic where males are larger in size than females.
4. Diet, Behavior, and Venom
King cobras belong to the genus Ophiophagus which literally means “snake-eater”. Thus, these snakes often feed on other snakes including rat snakes, pythons, and even other venomous snakes like cobras and kraits. Besides snakes, rodents, birds, and lizards also comprise the diet of these snakes. King cobras are diurnal in behavior and are rarely observed at night. They detect their prey by flicking out their forked tongues in the air which picks up chemical signals regarding the prey’s whereabouts. Such signals are processed in the Jacobson’s organ and interpreted as the sense of smell. The snakes also posses a sharp eyesight and an excellent ability to detect ground vibrations caused by movements. Once the snakes approach their prey, they paralyze it by envenomation. The flexible jaws of the snake allows it to swallow its prey in whole. King cobras, unlike the preconceived notion about these snakes, are not aggressive unless threatened repeatedly. Their primary response upon confrontation with humans or other threats is to flee the area. However, if they find themselves threatened repeatedly or attacked, the snakes try to use their venom as a weapon to defend themselves. Bites by king cobras are rare and usually snake handlers have been victims of such bites. However, the king cobra venom is highly potent and a single bite can deliver enough venom to kill 20 humans or even an elephant. The snake produces a neurotoxic venom, known as the haditoxin. Envenomation results in damaging the central nervous system causing excruciating pain, drowsiness, blurred vision, paralysis and finally death due to cardiac or respiratory failure. Death within 30 minutes of envenomation are known to occur. Antivenin has been developed by India and Thailand to combat cases of king cobra bites but since such cases are rare, only small stocks of such antivenin against king cobra venom are available.
3. Habitat and Range
King cobras inhabit dense forests with thick vegetation cover that allows them to remain camouflaged in such habitats. These snakes also prefer to stay near lakes, streams, and pools of the forest. King cobras are found in all countries of the Indian subcontinent with the largest population being found in India. They are also found in the dense forests of South Asian and Southeast Asian countries like China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
2. Threats and Conservation
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the king cobra as a "vulnerable" species. The king cobra has lost its habitat over a wide range due to deforestation activities. The snake is also hunted for its body parts which are often used in traditional medicines, especially in China and Vietnam. In other parts of the world, king cobras have been heavily persecuted for their venomous nature. In India, there is an age-old belief that the king cobra's eye captures the image of the person killing it. When the partner of the dead snake observes this image in the eyes of the dead lover, it seeks out the killer and bites the person. Thus, in the country, in rural areas where such beliefs prevail to this date, after killing the snakes, their bodies are completely burnt to avoid such incidents. Conservationists and herpetologists recognize the need to conserve these snakes as an important part of the forest food chain. In India, killing a king cobra is punishable by law with possible imprisonment of up to 6 years if convicted
1. Reproduction and Life Cycle
The mating ritual of the mighty king cobras is a dangerous spectacle. With their deadly venom, chances of fatality among the mating pair exist if a single move is miscalculated or there is any sign of aggression among the members of the courting pair. During the breeding season, the female king cobra secretes pheromones that attract the males from far away. More than one male might be attracted to the female but in the end, the female decides her mating partner. The male waits for the perfect moment when the female is ready and then the pair engage in a coital embrace for about an hour. After the male leaves, the female is ready to build her nest. Unlike most other species of snakes, the female king cobra is a dedicated mother. She builds her nest on ground by forming a mound from fallen leaves, twigs, and other ground debris. She lays about 20 to 40 eggs and the ambient temperature of the mound incubates the egg. The female stays on guard beside her nest for the entire incubation period of about 2 to 3 months. During this time, though most animal intruders are dissuaded to approach her nest due to her presence, in the rare cases when this happens, the female poses herself in an aggressive manner, spreads out her hood and hisses vehemently. The female goes hungry and only depends on rainwater to satisfy her thirst during this time. When the eggs are about to hatch, she immediately leaves the nest in search of food. Her innate nature to kill other snakes prevents her from consuming her own babies by this intuitive behavior. The baby king cobras that emerge from the eggs are already as venomous as the adults and set out to explore the world on their own. Many are killed by predators like mongoose, boars, civets, and birds, and only one or two of them survive to adulthood. The king cobras have an average life span of around 20 years.