The King Cobra, Ophiophagus hannah, is the longest of the venomous land snakes. It thrives in much of mainland India, southern China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and throughout the dense highland forests of southeastern Asia. The snake has a preference for living in areas dotted with lakes and streams, and is an excellent swimmer. Its population has decreased in some areas of its range due to the destruction of forests, but it is in no danger of becoming extinct.
The King Cobra is capable of growing up to 18.5 feet in length. Because they are slender, however, these snakes usually do not exceed 44 pounds. Although called a Cobra it does not belong to the same genus (Naja) as “true” cobras. The King Cobra is unique as it feeds exclusively on other snakes. It is known to attack larger snakes, including pythons. In spite of its fearsome reputation, it is generally a shy and reclusive animal, avoiding confrontation with people as much as possible. There are many smaller venomous snakes within this species’ range that are responsible for a far greater number of fatal snake bites.
Like other snakes, the King Cobra smells using its forked tongue which picks up the preys scent particles and transfers them to a special sensory receptor (Jacobson’s Organ), located in the roof of its mouth. When it detects the scent of a potential meal it continues to flicker its tongue to gauge the prey’s direction. The cobra also relies on its excellent eyesight, sensitivity to vibrations, and intelligence to hone in on prey. The King Cobra can detect its prey up to 328 feet away. Once it captures and poisons the prey, it begins to swallow the struggling animal whole while toxins begin to digest the victim.
Although the King Cobra’s venom is powerful enough to be fatal to humans, drop for drop it is less lethal than many other snakes, including that of rattlesnakes, kraits, mambas and the common cobra. Its lethalness comes in the fact that it injects as much as 2 fluid ounces of venom, which makes up for lack of potency and is enough to kill 20 to 30 people. The mortality rate in untreated bites is 75%.
King Cobras, as with all other snakes, do not have rigidly fixed jaws.
Instead the jaw bones are connected by extremely pliable ligaments, enabling the lower jaw bones to move independently of each other. This enables all snakes to swallow prey much larger than their head size. Like other cobras, the King Cobra can lift around a third of its body off the ground, make a hood, and hiss loudly when it feels threatened. A fully grown cobra would therefore be able to stare at a standing human directly in the eye, making it a terrifying sight.
The diet of the king cobra is mainly composed of other snakes. When food is scarce though, they will also feed on other small vertebrates, such as lizards. After a large meal the snake may live for many months without another meal due to a very slow metabolic rate. King cobras are able to hunt at all times of the day, although it is rarely seen at night, leading some to improperly classify it as a diurnal species. When encountering natural predators, such as a mongoose, which has some resistance to the snake neurotoxins, the cobra will generally flee. If all else fails, it will flatten its upper ribs forming a hood around its neck and emit a high-pitched hissing noise.
The venom of the king cobra is composed mostly of proteins and polypeptides and is produced in specialized salivary glands just behind the snake’s eyes. When it bites its prey, venom is forced through the snake’s half inch long fangs and into the wound. The venom attacks the nervous system and quickly induces severe pain, blurred vision, vertigo, drowsiness, and paralysis. Within minutes, cardiovascular collapse occurs, and the prey falls into a coma. Death soon follows due to respiratory failure. A king cobra can deliver enough venom to kill a full-grown Asian Elephant in 3 hours.