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Deadly Aim: Spitting Cobras

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 27 Nov 2012 | comments*Discuss
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Of all the reptiles, the spitting cobra is probably one of the most feared of all snakes – its infamous ability of spitting or spraying venom up to a distance of 10 feet is enough to give anyone nightmares and rightfully earns them a position as one of the deadliest of snakes.

Spitting Fangs

The name “spitting cobra” is actually a misnomer as the snakes do not spit but actually spray venom, usually into the face and eyes of any predators or careless herbivore. The venom is pumped up via muscular contractions of the venom glands and forced out through holes at the tips of the fangs; simultaneously, the cobra’s lungs expel a strong gust of air which effectively vaporises the venom, causing it to be propelled forward as a deadly spray. And their aim is very accurate – if cornered, spitting cobras can spray their venom as far as 2 metres away. Spitting cobras will usually raise their “hood” just before getting ready to attack and will take aim with their open mouths, usually targeting the face and especially the eyes. However, spitting cobras can also bite like a conventional snake, with significant toxic effects – both to the blood and to the nervous system. While they use the spitting behaviour primarily in self-defence, they will hunt down and bite their prey in the conventional way. Spitting cobras feed on small rodents, frogs, toads and lizards.

Scientists believe that spitting cobras evolved their remarkable behaviour as a defence mechanism, due to their sharing their environment with various antelope species and the great likelihood of getting trampled on. Just as the rattlesnake is believed to have evolved its “warning rattle” to alert buffalo and other grazing North American species to their presence, so the spitting cobra might have evolved their famous venom-spraying fangs for similar reasons and as an effective way to avoid being trampled by antelope hooves.

A Bed of Spitting Snakes!

There are several species of spitting cobras which are common throughout Asia and Afria, including the Black Spitting Cobra (Naja woodi), Mozambique Spitting Cobra (Naja mossambica), Black and White Spitting Cobra (Naja siamensis, Western Barred Spitting Cobra (Naja nigricincta), Sumatran Spitting Cobra (Naja sumatrana), Red Spitting Cobra (Naja pallida), Malaysian Spitting Cobra (Naja sputatrix), Nubian Spitting Cobra (Naja nubiae), West African Brown Spitting Cobra (Naja katiensis) and the Black-Necked Spitting Cobra (Naja nigricollis) – probably the most famous of spitting cobras.

The largest species of spitting cobra was recently discovered by researchers in Kenya and the United Kingdom. Called the Large Brown Spitting Cobra (Naja ashei) or Ashe’s Spitting Cobra - after James "Jimmy" Ashe, a prominent herpetologist who founded the Bio-Ken snake farm and research center in Watamu, Kenya, where the snake is commonly found – this reptile can reach lengths of more than 9 feet and can deliver more venom in a single bite than any other cobra on earth. It lives in the dry lowlands of east and north Kenya and was previously mistaken as a brown variant of the black-necked spitting cobra but blood and tissue analysis tests have now confirmed that it is a separate species. Its discovery has been important for the many victims of snake bites that live along Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast because it can deliver twice the amount of venom in a single bite and doctors previously treating its bites as those of another snake were only administering half the necessary dose of anti-venom to bite victims. This discovery also highlights again the huge variety of undiscovered and unknown species existing on earth and the threat to biodiversity from our mankind’s continued environmental destruction.

Spitting Cobra Attacks

Spitting cobra attacks are not something to be laughed at. While it’s venom is not as lethal as that of the king cobra, it is still extremely toxic. If the venom enters the eyes it can cause pain and permanent blindness, though chemosis and corneal swelling. The venom can also be fatal if it enters an open wound. Therefore, it is vital to always wear a full face protector over glasses, in addition to other protective gear, when working in proximity to these snakes. Even baby spitting cobras are born “loaded” and ready to go and can inflict significant injury if aroused to bite!

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