written by: Matt Schelke•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 12/14/2008
The king cobra is one of the most famous snakes in the world. Discover some interesting facts about its biology and life, and learn about its use in the mystical practice of snake charming.
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Marriages in the village of Vadinagar in India used to have interesting dowries. Fairly often, the husbands would receive no gold, jewels, or similar presents. They would receive snakes- obsidian-black king cobras that formed the foundations of the family’s livelihood. You see, Vadinagar was a town of snake charmers.
Snake charming has its roots in Ancient Egypt, where charmers were thought to have magical healing skills. Modern charmers are nomads who wander from town to town, trying to find markets and festivals where they can perform. While the practice is certainly interesting, the snakes themselves are equally, if not more, fascinating. In this Species Spotlight, we’ll discover why the king cobra has intrigued humans for thousands of years.
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The king cobra is one of the world’s longest snakes, growing to over eighteen feet in length. Its scales are usually green or light brown, and it has yellow bands along its whole body. The cobra’s head is famous for its distinctive flaring, giving it the “king" moniker. The head itself is small, but like other snakes, can expand to swallow large prey. The cobra’s venom, which can kill a human in a matter of minutes, is injected into they prey through the snake’s teeth.
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Habitat and Diet
The cobra has a large range, including much of South and Southeast Asia. It prefers densely forested areas with many bodies of water. The cobra eats other snakes, a practice known as ophiophagy; however, if there are few available snakes, it will consume small rodents and amphibians.
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King cobras are highly competitive maters. Males will fight over a female using a technique called “head wrestling", where two males entwine each other. The successful male then woos the female by rubbing against her body. Humans, clearly, aren’t the only racy creatures on the planet.
After mating, the female lays up to fifty eggs in a nest made from organic (sticks, leaves, soil, etc.) materials. Juveniles are about 19 inches long and have black scales with bright yellow bands. The parent cobras are extremely protective of their young.
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Navigation and Hunting
The cobra’s forked tongue is its main sensory organ. The prey emits sense particles, which then float through the air until they contact the snakes’ tongue. The fork allows directional navigation, like our ears allow us to locate a sound around us. The cobras also have terrific eyesight and can sense vibrations in the earth, but these senses are secondary to the tongue. Cobras hunt throughout the day.
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Interaction With Humans
Snake catching for display or charming has been forbidden in India through the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, but charmers can still be seen on the streets of many major cities. In addition, the king cobra is worshipped in India because it is seen as the earthly representation of the snake god. Deaths from king cobras aoccur far less frequently than deaths from other cobras.
So while the king cobra is a central object of Asian culture and myth, the creature itself is a unique and beautiful species. Many people are terrified of seeing a cobra, as they have gotten a vicious reputation. But, as with most animals, the key is not to anger it. If you appreciate the king cobra. the cobra will appreciate you.