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King Cobra Fact Sheet

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Photo by Dr. Anand Titus and Geeta N Pereira.

King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah): a large, venomous snake native to Asia.

Kingdom: | Animalia
Class: | Reptilia
Order: | Squamata
Family: | Elapidae
Genus: | Ophiophagus
Species: | O. hannah

There are 21 species of cobras, but the king cobra is the sole member of the genus Ophiophagus. It is distinguishable from other cobras by its large size and neck patterns. The name “king cobra” stems from its ability to kill and eat cobras.

Size and Weight:

The king cobra may grow to be 18.5 feet long, making it the largest venomous snake in the world. On average, king cobras measures 10 to 12 feet in length. They typically weigh around 13 pounds.

Appearance:

A king cobra’s skin color varies depending on its habitat. Its skin is often yellow, green, brown or black, often with yellowish or white crossbars or chevrons. The belly may be uniform in color or ornamented with bars, and the throat is light yellow or cream-colored. Young king cobras are jet-black, with yellow or white crossbars on the body and tail and four similar crossbars on the head.

Like most cobras and mambas, the king cobra’s threat display includes spreading its neck-flap, raising its head upright, puffing and hissing. A king cobra can raise itself up to one-third of its body length, in some cases, making it taller than an average man. Their deadly fangs are nearly 0.5 inches long. Angled back into the snake’s mouth, the fangs help push the prey on its path to the stomach.

Diet:

The king cobra’s diet consists largely of cold-blooded animals, particularly other snakes. Unlike other snake species, king cobras rarely hunt vertebrates like rodents and lizards. A king cobra may develop a rigid diet of a single snake species and may refuse any other snake species. They tend to eat larger harmless species like Asian rat snakes and pythons up to 10 feet in length. They may also eat venomous Indian cobras and even small king cobras.

Habitat:

King cobras are often found in streams in dense or open forests, bamboo thickets, adjacent agricultural areas and dense mangrove swamps. They tend to stay near streams, where the temperature and humidity are relatively constant. They spend almost a fourth of their time up in trees or bushes.

Geography:

King cobras are endemic to southeast and southern Asia. They can be found in northern India, east to southern China, south throughout the Malay Peninsula, and east to western Indonesia and the Philippines.

Breeding:

Breeding usually occurs from January through April. While many cobras are known to protect their eggs after they are laid, the mother king cobra takes it a step further. The mother will build a nest with leaves before she lays her eggs. On average, a mother cobra will lay 21 to 40 white, leathery eggs. After laying her eggs, she will cover them with leaves and place herself on top to incubate them until they hatch. The male will typically remain close by. It is possible that king cobras are monogamous.

During the brood care period, the king cobra tends to be very aggressive toward approaching humans. The eggs incubate during spring and summer and hatch in the fall.

Social Structure:

While the king cobra has a fearsome reputation and is undoubtedly a very dangerous snake, it is not a particularly aggressive snake and prefers to escape unless it is provoked. It is more likely to attack people when cornered, in self-defense or to protect its eggs. However, nesting females are more likely to attack without provocation. Across its range, king cobra causes fewer than five human deaths a year.

Its weapon: venom. When a king cobra bites, it releases venom delivered from glands attached to its fangs. The flexing of a small muscle forces the venom through the hollow fangs into the victim. Neurotoxins stun the prey’s nervous system, especially the impulses for breathing, within minutes of the bite. Other toxins start digesting the paralyzed victim.

In comparison to other snake species, the king cobra has great eyesight and is able to see a moving person almost 330 feet away. It will emit a deep loud hiss that is much lower than most snakes’. Its hiss is similar to that of the rattle of a rattlesnake and is meant to act as a warning signal to stay away. To impress a rival, male king cobras resort to wrestling. Male combat is a ritual conflict in which the first one to push the other’s head to the ground wins.

Lifespan:

King cobras can live about 20 years in the wild.

Threats:

The largest threats to king cobras include habitat loss and persecution by humans.

Conservation Status:

King cobras are listed as “vulnerable” by IUCN’s Red List.

Conservation Efforts:

The king cobra is listed in CITES Appendix II, meaning that is one of about 21,000 species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction but may become so unless trade of such species is subject to strict regulation.

The king cobra is protected in several of the countries it inhabits, including in China and Vietnam. In India, it is protected by the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Killing a king cobra is punished with imprisonment of up to six years.

Sources: the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute and the San Diego Zoo.

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