With its regal appearance and fierce charisma, this venomous animal strikes fear in some, but amazement in others. Since snakes in general have a very undeserved poor reputation, you can dispel myths about king cobras and their many other relatives. Read on to learn more about this awesome reptile.
1. King cobras aren’t true cobras
King cobras were once believed to be a species of cobra when first discovered. However, recent research has shown that they aren’t true cobras at all; in fact, they’re more closely related to mambas. All true cobras currently belong to the genus Naja, while the king cobra is in the genus Ophiophagus.
King cobras can be found throughout Southern and Southeastern Asia, including countries such as India, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Currently, Ophiophagus hannah is the only species of king cobra recognized by most taxonomic authorities. Researchers have found that there are currently three other undescribed species of king cobras. They differ mainly by geographic range, physical appearance, and even by venom composition.
The King cobra is the longest venomous snake in the world, reaching around 10-12 (3.05-3.66 meters) feet on average. Unusually for snakes, males are longer (and larger) than females. The longest king cobra ever recorded was an individual caught in Thailand; it measured around 18 feet (5.4 meters) in length!
Adult king cobras vary in coloration but are typically brown, yellow, or even greyish. Some populations sport thick, banded stripes, while others are more uniform in color. Hatchling king cobras are much more vibrant, sporting bright yellow and black bands.
2. They eat mainly other snakes
A king cobra’s diet consists mostly of other snakes, including other king cobras! In fact, its genus, Ophiophagus, roughly translates to “snake eater” in Greek, and the ‘king’ part of its name derives from its dietary preferences. Some individuals are reported to be rather picky, only snacking on a certain species, while others will happily feast on many species, from rat snakes to vipers. They’ll even take on pythons. Occasionally, king cobras will also prey on lizards, birds, frogs, and small mammals (though this is rare in the wild).
3. Its bite can kill an elephant
The king cobra’s venom is highly toxic, chemically made up of cytotoxins and neurotoxins. Though it isn’t necessarily the most potent venom out there (taipan venom is stronger), the amount it produces per bite can kill around 20 people or even a single elephant. Just a single bite from this snake is dangerous, causing symptoms such as nerve damage, paralysis, and even death from respiratory failure.
Though it sports a fearsome reputation, the king cobra isn’t an aggressive animal by nature and would rather be left alone. It will usually flee if disturbed, often avoiding human disturbances. However, a cobra guarding its nest or cornered will behave very defensively. It will flare its characteristic hood and will produce a growl-like hiss to scare threats off; it will also strike if all else fails. If you ever happen to see a wild cobra or any other venomous snake, it is best to leave it alone.
4. It is the only snake that builds a nest
The king cobra is the only known snake that builds a nest for its eggs. When a gravid female is ready to lay her eggs, she will search for an area with sloped terrain to provide drainage from monsoon floods. She will also search for an area that is adequately shaded, usually near a tree. As soon as the mother finds a suitable nesting spot, she will proceed to gather bunches of leaf litter by coiling her body around a pile.
After scooping the leaves and other debris into a mound, she will slither inside and lay around 20-40 eggs. The mother will then emerge back out and protect the nest until the babies hatch. The decaying plant material will generate enough heat to incubate the eggs inside, and the baby snakes will hatch after around 60-70 days. As soon as they leave the nest, the babies live independently on their own.
5. King cobras need our help
The King cobra is currently considered a threatened species, being listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List as of 2012. As more research occurs regarding the currently undescribed king cobra species, it may even become endangered in the future. This majestic snake is losing its habitat due to deforestation, putting this animal at increased risk of human contact. Being in areas prevalent to human disturbances puts both king cobra and humans at risk. Poaching poses a major threat as they are often overhunted for its leather, meat, and body parts for use in traditional Chinese medicines. They are also highly sought for the pet trade as animals are often captured from the wild, despite being extremely dangerous to keep. Due to its negative reputation in most of its range, king cobras are also persecuted due to fear.
Thankfully, there are conservation efforts put in place to ensure the king cobra’s future survival. It is a protected species in China, India, and Vietnam, where punishable offenses range from fines to imprisonment. Conservation organizations are also working hard to research these reptiles to further understand their ecology in efforts to protect this species. They also educate local communities about safely coexisting with the king cobra. Fortunately, the king cobra is highly respected as a sacred animal in many places, and zoos are also working hard to breed and conserve this snake.
You can help king cobras by supporting zoos and other conservation organizations that are actively involved in the research and protection of these magnificent reptiles such as the King Cobra Conservancy. You can also raise awareness by educating your friends and family about this species.