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Why The King Cobra Might Not Be King Afterall…Or Even A Cobra

When people talk of snakes, they inevitably bring up his name. I call this snake him because it’s right there in the moniker.

The King Cobra.

One of the most feared snakes on the planet; correction, the most feared snake on the planet, it is a 12 foot (sometimes 18!) mighty Goliath whose bite is worse than its hiss. But is the King Cobra really all that we make it out to be? I mean, is the King Cobra, really the biggest, baddest, meanest and most venomous cobra of them all?

Nope, not quite.

The King Has Fallen

I have always loved the King Cobra. Always.

Then you can imagine my surprise, shock and intense disappointment when a few years ago I found out that the King Cobra isn’t actually a cobra at all! (gasp!)

I’ll give you a few seconds to digest this information.

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Okay. Getting back.

Yes, the King Cobra is not a “true” cobra. It is just a snake that happens to have the word “cobra” in its name.

In reality, Cobras (true cobras) belong to the family of snakes called Elapidae and their genus name is Naja. The King Cobra, on the other hand (although from the family of snakes as the true cobras), comes from a completely separate genus called Ophiophagus. The word Ophiophagus is quite literally Greek for “Snake Eater”.  

To understand why the King Cobra is called a cobra, despite not really being a cobra; we need to look at the differences between the King and true cobras. I’ve created a table for you to read:

 

Characteristics

True Cobra

King Cobra

Hood shape & size

Short & wide Long & narrow
 

Hood visibility

Hood is very easily noticeable. Hood is not as noticeable. Very narrow hood.

*Hood pattern

Various patterns – V-shaped, Eye shaped, Two circles etc.  The pattern looks like a “V” (almost chevron pattern) or a broken oval.
 

Food

Eggs, small birds, small mammals, lizards, toads & sometimes other snakes. Exclusively feed on snakes and sometimes poisonous snakes (including true cobras and other Kings).
 

Fang placement

Fangs are fixed on the top jaw. Not retractable.   Fangs are fixed on the top jaw. Not retractable.  

Venom (in a single bite)

Between 50 mg & 400 mg Between 380 mg & 600 mg
 

Desire to bite

Very low. Very shy snakes, prefer to only strike in warning, with their mouths closed. Bite only in extreme cases. Very low. Very shy snakes, prefer to only strike in warning, with their mouths closed. Bite only in extreme cases.

Number of scales on the head

 

9

11

The size difference between genders

Males & females are almost the same sizes. Females are much smaller than males.
 

Egg-laying behaviour

Lay eggs and leave them unattended; just like other snake species. Build a nest out of twigs and leaves, lay eggs in the nest & stay back to aggressively protect the clutch until the eggs hatch.

Number of members in the genus

 

31

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  • So, why is the King cobra called a “Cobra”?

Because of the presence of the hood and the similar fang placement.

  • Why is it not considered a True cobra?

Because it doesn’t share most of the other features that true cobras have.

 

Now for the next question…

 

Why is the King Cobra called the “King”?

While there is no definitive answer, most scientists do agree that the King cobra’s preference to kill and eat other snakes, even his own cousins, makes him extremely deadly. No other snake in the entire world has been observed showing this level of focused preference towards cannibalism. 

This unique, almost ruthless behaviour; plus its extraordinary courage and its lack of restraint when it does decide to inject venom; have given this snake the title of the King.

But if you really think about it; the King Cobra is the only member of its Ophiophagus genus. So, how can it be a King, when it doesn’t have any subjects to rule?

 

Ha ha…food for thought.

 

One more thing before we end

Snake bites can be dangerous. But preparation and knowledge can help. This report about What You Should Do During A Snake Bite is really helpful and can save a life.

 

 

 

* (Refer table: Hood Pattern)

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Different hood patterns on the hood of the spectacled cobra (Source)

 

 

-NISHA PRAKASH

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If Poison Were A Colour…

Here’s a short poem before we start:

 

Five Little Crayons

Five little crayons coloured a scene.

Yellow, blue, orange, red and green.

“Look,” said Yellow, “My sun is bright!”

Blue said, “Great! My river’s just right!”

Orange said, “Flowers! I’ll draw something new.”

Red said, “Great, I’ll add some, too!”

“Sigh,” said Green, “I’m tired of trees,

And grass and bushes and tiny leaves.

I think I’ll draw a big green cloud!”

“A big green cloud should be allowed!”

The crayons all smiled and didn’t think twice

A big green cloud sounded rather nice!

 

Pretty fun to sing isn’t it? And a wonderful sight it would be too. Especially in the wild.

Nature has her fair share of spectacularly beautiful animals and plants. Super colourful and oh-so-inviting, your only wish would be to touch the creature and feel it under your fingers. But do so and that may be the last thing you ever do.

If there’s one thing you need to remember about the wild, it’s that Colours = Poison.

Say hello to Aposematism

What do they call an animal that uses bright colours to ward-off danger? An aposematic animal of course. Aposematism is the biological process of using colours as signals to repel predators.

Animals brighten their skin pigments or even change their colours as warning to other animals not to cross their path. Plants, flowers, fungi and seeds use bright colours which indicate high levels of toxicity (which animals learn indicate ‘Don’t Eat’).

Aposematic animals & plants work in weird, but wonderful ways. While some are genuinely poisonous and use unique colours to their advantage, others are non-poisonous and mimic their more dangerous cousins to confuse and scare-off their predators, who otherwise may attack them.

But here you have below the list of 5 animals who really are poisonous and who use colour as a warning sign in the wild. Remember, they may look enchanting and you may want to touch them or pet them. But trust me, it’s better you stay away.

Now, without further ado, here are our top pics for pretty but potent animals in the wild:

1) Amazonian Poison Dart Frog

This one is most certainly the poster boy for ‘colorful but potent’ category in the wild (hence the feature image ;D) 

Poison dart frogs are one of the most toxic creatures on land. Dart frogs don’t make their own poisons, but store the poison of the insects and smaller animals they eat. They then process these poisons and combine them to make a very potent toxin…something which can be severely painful for humans.

Local Amazonian tribes use the tree frog’s poison to coat their darts, which they use to hunt monkeys and birds. The most toxic of all Amazonian tree frogs is Phyllobates terribilis.

Amazon red frog
Red Striped Poison Dart Frog
Amazon blue frog
Blue Poison Dart Frog
Golden Poison frog
Yellow-Banded Poison Dart Frog
Golden Frog
Phyllobates terribilis aka Golden Poison Frog

 

2) Caterpillars

The Monarch Butterfly and the Pipevine Swallowtail store and use their prey’s toxin as a defence mechanism when they are older. Birds know they can be deadly to eat and avoid them. But other than a handful of these winged critters, most butterflies and moths aren’t poisonous. But the same can’t be said of their offspring.

Many caterpillars have a poisonous coating on their body, which protects them from being eaten by predators when they are young & helpless. While some poisons only knock the predator out for a few hours, others kill. A case in point is the formidable  N’gwa or ‘Kaa caterpillar, which is found in Africa and whose toxin, according to researcher David Livingstone, which is a mixture of snake venom and plant toxin, has the capacity to kill an antelope.

 

Saddleback caterpillar.jpg
Saddleback Caterpillar
Stinging Rose Caterpillar.jpeg
Stinging Rose Caterpillar
Gypsy Moth Caterpillar
Gypsy Moth Caterpillar
Spiny Oak Slug Caterpillar
Spiny Oak Slug Caterpillar

 

3) Hooded Pitohui

Did you ever think a bird would be on this list?

The Hooded Pitohui, scientifically called Pitohui dichrous makes its home in the lush forests of New Guinea. The size of a dove, the Pitohui is the only documented poisonous bird in the world.

It’s toxin is a neurotoxin which numbs and paralyzes the victims. Luckily, this toxin isn’t fatal to humans, although the effects can take hours to wear-off. Sadly, the same isn’t true for its prey which are insects.

The Hooded Pitohui is part of a 3-species family, which also includes the Variable Pitohui and the Brown Pitohui, which are poisonous too, but not to the level of toxicity as their hooded cousin. The toxin has been found to be the outcome of the birds’ consumption of the choresine beetle. Such a nuisance is this bird to the surrounding tribes, it had been nicknamed Pitohui or ‘rubbish bird’ by the locals, which then was adopted as its official name.

Hooded pitchoui 1
Hooded Pitohui
Hooded pitchoui 2
Hooded Pitohui
Variable pithoui
Variable Pitohui
Brown pitchoui
Brown Pitohui

 

4) Pufferfish

Here’s an animal that can (and has) kill(ed) a human. Puffer fish are one of the most venomous animals on the planet and a single sting can bring down the mightiest of men. Often, human deaths occur when people unwittingly consume puffer fish organs in their meal. In animals though, its often a result of the puffer’s hunting or defence strategy.

The toxin the puffer fish contains is called Tetrodotoxin, which is a highly potent neurotoxin. The toxin slowly blocks all the neural transmitters in the body, essentially paralysing the victim, one organ at a time. At its peak, the Tetrodotoxin closes the wind pipe, slows down the lungs  and stops the heart from working. Soon, the brain dies due to asphyxiation and lack of blood flow, killing the victim. Scientists believe Tetrodotoxin  is 200 times more lethal than cyanide!

Want to know something even more unbelievable? The Japanese have a very special dish called Fugu which is made of puffer fish and is served during very special events. And guess what? Chefs deliberately leave a bit of the poison on the fish as an adrenaline-inducing treat for the guests.

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Guineafowl Puffer Fish
Puffer fish 3
Blue Spotted Puffer Fish
Puffer fish 4
Yellow Spotted Puffer Fish
Puffer fish 6
Diodon Puffer Fish

 

5) Cone snails

They look harmless, inviting even. But pick one up and you’ll be stung faster than you can say ‘Oh no!’. Cone snails are another sea dweller that even humans need to beware of, if they don’t wish to be hurt or worse, dead.

Coming in a variety of shapes and sizes, cone snails contain a variety of neuro venoms (depending on the species) and can range in toxicity that’s akin to everything from a bee sting to a fatal hit. These snails shoot out harpoons, which are teeth-like organs which they use when hunting underwater. Any animal that has the misfortune of brushing against the cone snail will be the unfortunate recipient of the harpoon.

One species of cone snail that are extremely potent to humans is the Conus geographus or the Cigarette snail, whose toxin is said to be so quick-acting that victims have only time enough to smoke a small cigarette before dying.

Another gastropod that is poisonous – Nudibranch. You can read all about them here.

Conus geographus
Conus Geographus, aka the Cigarette snail
Marbled cone snail
Marbeled Cone Snail
Cone snail
Types of Poisonous Cone Snails

 

In the next article, we’ll focus on the Top 5 Most Colourful & Poisonous Plants and Fungi.

 

-NISHA PRAKASH 

 

P.S: Featured Image: Poison Dart Frog