King Cobra
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Petrified Lightning

King Cobra

A panel of herpetologists (scientists whose specialty is snakes) was asked which snake they considered the most dangerous in the world. They almost unanimously agreed that the king cobra, Ophiophagus hannah, ranks number one. This was the snake that experts would least like to step on, to be locked up with in a phone booth, or to see smiling down on them.

The king cobra is not the most deadly. The saw—scaled viper, taipan, and krait all have more toxic venom; the mamba is faster; and the gaboon viper has longer fangs. Moreover, several of the 300 species of small, peaceable sea snakes are 50 to 100 times more venomous than the cobra but are the least threatening of all poisonous snakes. The shy sea snake usually bites only when handled by a foolish human. Recently a scuba diver off Thailand suddenly found himself in the midst of an incredible number of sea snakes. They were so thick he felt that he could walk on them; yet not a single snake made any attempt to bite the man who, at this point, was mentally writing his will.

The king cobra is by far the largest venomous snake in the world, its record being 18 feet, 4 inches long, with an average length of about 14 feet. It is found throughout Southeast Asia, India, and southern China, but it is not a major contributor to snakebite mortality worldwide—which reflects its preference for regions remote from the habitats of humans. If it were to invade agricultural areas as do other cobra species, the bite and death ratios would shoot up significantly. Scientists estimate that the king cobra, with large poison glands containing highly potent neurotoxic venom, can deliver 120 times the amount of venom needed to kill an adult human. Moreover, to make sure it delivers an ample amount, the king cobra hangs on when it bites, chewing away at the wound so that the venom penetrates. The venom is so toxic that careless handling of the substance can send a person into a coma. Being toxic to the nerves, king cobra venom can kill a person within 15 to 20 minutes after a bite.

The king cobra can also topple an elephant! In 1991 a timber crew in central India was startled when one of their work elephants suddenly trumpeted in agony and went berserk. It attacked everything standing, including other elephants. Much destruction resulted from its 20—minute rampage, after which it suddenly stopped, sank to its knees, and gently rolled over dead. The unfortunate beast had unwittingly stepped on a king cobra that protested much as any creature might do when stepped on by a full—grown elephant. After biting the elephant on its right front knee, the snake died from the trampling and became a tasty evening meal for the workers; so did the elephant.

As its Latin name implies, the king cobra is a snake eater (Ophio—snake, phagus—eater). Although its diet is almost entirely snakes, it does not hesitate to swallow lizards, rodents, and birds that wander into its habitat. It will eat any snake, harmless or poisonous, including pythons and cobras, and has been known to turn cannibal and eat the young of its own species.

One of the king cobra's claims to superiority, demonstrated by those studied in captivity, is its intelligence. For example, it quickly learns not to strike the glass cage front and can recognize the person who cares for it. It is therefore tolerant toward its keeper but will become aggressive to others who come too close. Visitors to a zoo notice how its eyes glitter with brilliant, round pupils and how its stare is so intense as to be frightening even from behind glass. A strain of stubbornness also marks this species of snake in captivity. In the Los Angeles zoo, a 12—foot king cobra went on a hunger strike, for reasons unknown, and had to be force—fed. A crew of keepers kept it immobilized while the curator shoved food down its throat.

One of the greatest dangers of the king cobra is that it is so unpredictable. It may move quietly away from an intruder or disturbance, but all too often it is aggressive and will attack without provocation. Without doubt a 14—foot poisonous snake is a force to be reckoned with. When excited, angered, or threatened, it raises the front one—third of its body off the ground, extends the anterior ribs so that the hood flares menacingly, and gives a prolonged hiss. This familiar cobra stance is probably the serpent's way of warning a potential enemy. Most intimidating is the king cobra's ability to move forward while in this upright posture, with its head four to six feet off the ground. The terrifying head, at eye level or above, can strike as far as the raised portion of the body can reach. Challenged by the formidable gaze and stance of the cobra, all adversaries should retreat first and evaluate the situation later.

The king cobra is more predictable during breeding season: both sexes are guaranteed to be aggressive. Both guard the eggs and challenge all intruders. The king cobra deserves commendation as a most devoted, sacrificing parent, for very few snakes nest in this manner. After mating, the female, occasionally assisted by the male, will scoop piles of vegetation into large mounds. She will cover the eggs with vegetation and make another compartment on top of them. Into this she will crawl and remain until the eggs are hatched. The male, if he decides to stick around, will station himself on either side of the mound, changing position from time to time. The decaying vegetation keeps the eggs warm, as does the body heat of the attending female. When the eggs hatch, the new hatchlings are on their own, and the parents go their separate ways. The newborn cobras, about 20 inches long when released from the egg, are already a deadly threat to animal life and are very excitable. They strike at just about anything that moves, even each other.

During the incubation period, the guarding mother is most dangerous. Even the male knows better than to climb the mound, as the female will not tolerate any disturbance of her incubating offspring. Any unfortunate human who stumbles onto the cobra's nest without recognizing it will not be given the advantage of the cobra's hiss and stance; he or she will be immediately attacked and bitten. The hapless victim will probably have no trouble sleeping through the next night or, for that matter, eternally.