Species Profile: The King Cobra

KIng Cobra

The name “King Cobra” gives the sense that snakes have a mighty ruler. Every civilization needs leadership. In fairy tales, there is a King or Queen to valiantly rule the land. Even in the Lion King movie, the animals knew who their ultimate “master” was. That isn’t really how it works among snakes in the real world.

What are some basic species details about King Cobras? King Cobras are venomous. They mostly eat other snakes. While they are certainly fearsome and very aggressive hunters, they are not the most dangerous snake in the world, and will run from humans if given the chance. 

Although an encounter with one is terrifying, if not life-threatening, King Cobras are creatures that excite the imagination and are frequent villains in adventure books and blockbusters.

The King Cobra: Overview

Classically, Indiana Jones comes face to face with a pit of venomous snakes and survives! Indiana Jones never loses, so it’s impossible for simple snake obstacles to kill him; however, these bone-chilling creatures did give the courageous hero reason to pause and for a good reason!

King Cobras get their name from the fact that they frequently attack and eat other Cobras. Their dominance in the food chain grants them the title of “King.”

Their diet also consists of other species of snake outside of the cobra family. They don’t go for snakes that are too large, but find many smaller species in the forest to hunt.

King Cobras are some of the most venomous snakes in the world. They paralyze their prey with one bite and typically eat other snakes as their main source of food.

King Cobras are not particularly colorful or easy to spot. Their coloring ranges between yellow, brown, black, and green. Black and brown are typically the base colors with yellows, whites, and greens running along its back and underside. King Cobras usually populate forests, so their coloring is good for blending in. 

Their young are more brightly colored, if you can call it “bright,” than the adults. They will sometimes have colored rings around their bodies right after birth. Their coloring slowly changes and adapts to their environment making them less noticeable as time goes on.

They are egg layers that incubate them outside their bodies for months. King Cobras are protective of their young and stay with them to incubate and protect the eggs until hatching.

King Cobras are fearsome creatures and aggressive hunters, but they are not the most dangerous snake in the world. They are usually pretty cautious and avoid people as often as possible.

Size

Studies have shown that the King Cobra can grow to an average length between 8-10 feet. If you stood a 10 footer on its tail, it would be double my height. That is a terrifying thought and makes me want to avoid any and every part of Asia where these guys could show up.

But wait, there’s more! There have also been cases of these snakes reaching 18 feet long. That is just not okay. To add insult to injury, they can also swim and like to live around bodies of water.

The babies can be approximately 18 inches long when they hatch. Their size doesn’t do much to stop their abilities to hunt, though. Even as newly hatched snakes, they can hunt and defend themselves while they continue to develop. They grow for most of their lives, and food availability can have some influence over when they cease their growing. 

Behavior

I don’t mean to insinuate that we should live our lives in fear of the King Cobra overrunning our lands and killing us off. King Cobras do not hunt humans.

The only reason they will attack is if they feel like you have cornered them or threatened them in any way. The Cobra is vigilant when it comes to threats and tries to avoid them whenever possible.

In actuality, more deaths occur per year from Rattlesnake bites than King Cobra bites. At most, 5 deaths are caused by the venom of King Cobras from year to year.  The one exception, of course, are the females protecting their young. If you come near to one of their nests, they can attack without you having to provoke them. 

Like many other male animals, Cobras will assert dominance over another by wrestling him to submission. This may be for a female, a bit of land, or attacking them for the purposes of making them their next meal.

King Cobras are ferociously protective of their young and can usually attack without thought or need if anything nears their nest.

Habitat

King Cobras are found mainly in the forests, dense clusters of bamboo, and grasslands of Southeast Asia and India. They are typically found in close proximity to some body of water because they can swim well. This puts a damper on a nice summer day swim when a 10-foot snake starts doing laps beside you. 

The forest allows for semi-consistent temperatures and humidity levels in that part of the world and also creates a thriving environment for snakes and creatures of every kind. The forest is full of many species of snake and gives the King Cobra plenty to hunt. 

The damp forest floor gives off a lot of heat from the decomposition and rotting of vegetation. King Cobras use these forest floor materials to create nests for their eggs. The browns, blacks, greens, and yellows of the forest background make it a great place for King Cobras to slither around as unnoticed as a 12-foot snake possibly can. 

Reproduction

Unlike many snake species that leave their young quickly, the King Cobra lays eggs and incubates them entirely. King Cobras are one of the only types of snake that create an actual nest for their eggs. The nest is made up mostly of leaves with other rotting plants and dirt to insulate it.

The nest materials are chosen for their ability to help keep the eggs warm. The King Cobra mothers lay them, warm them, and protect them until they are hatched.

One of the most aggressive times in a King Cobras life is when they are protecting their young from people, snakes, and various animals that wander too close. 

King Cobras usually start the breeding process in the spring like most reptiles. Hatching usually occurs sometime in the Fall after a long incubation period. Uncommon in most snakes, the male will actually stay with the female during incubation. He acts as another ring of protection for the eggs. 

At one time, a female King Cobra typically produces approximately 20 eggs. There is always some variation from one snake to another, so there have been times where close to 40 or 50 eggs have been produced at once. 

Once the eggs hatch, the babies are left alone. They are perfectly able to defend and hunt for themselves. A baby is big enough and strong enough to catch live prey almost immediately. Their live prey won’t be a snake quite yet, but they will start with mice or rats. 

Dietary Habits And Predators

It’s eat or be eaten in the world of the King Cobras. Their diet mainly consists of other snakes. Picky eaters may only want one species of snake, but others may eat whatever species they come across next.

The snakes they generally go for are the ones which are commonly known as harmless species. These snakes are generally bigger and not known for their aggression. A few examples of the snakes that a King Cobra might eat are compiled in the list below.

  • Asian rat snakes
  • Dhamans
  • Pythons
  • smaller King Cobras
  • Indian Cobras 
  • Kraits 
  • etc. 

Being the “King” of the Cobras allows you dominion over them. The aggression and size of the King Cobra give them the ability to pick off any snake they choose within reason.

They aren’t going to hunt for a snake that is significantly bigger than they are because of the hassle and risk that would be. There are plenty of snakes that dwarf under the size of the King Cobra and are easy prey for these menacing hunters.

As you may have seen in the movies, the King Cobra possesses another frightening ability: they can chase you standing up. Standing up is a weird way to put it, but King Cobras can move while holding the top part of their body in the air.

They also can cause a “hood” effect to come around their head by flattening out the neck. This is what a stereotypical cobra looks like when it attacks or threatens an enemy.

The King Cobra doesn’t have many natural enemies. Humans are a big one because we tend to hunt the King Cobra for medical research and take over their homes by cutting down forests.

Mongooses are another animal that typically feeds on snakes. They aren’t afraid of the King Cobra and can successfully battle and eat the smaller King Cobras.

Venomous or Nonvenomous?

A lot of people ask what snake is the most poisonous. This is not correct when asking if a snake’s bite will kill you. Poisonous refers to an idea that you’re eating a snake and it’s bad for you. That is when a snake can be deemed poisonous.

I have seen many things on the internet which try to simplify the formula. I’ve seen it written, “If you bite it and you die, it’s poisonous. If it bites you and you die, it’s venomous.”

Snakes are venomous when they release venom through their fangs into your body to kill or seriously injure you. You should only worry about poisonous snakes if it is your chosen delicacy for the evening.

Without getting overly “National Geographic” on you, I want to explain how a snake kills its prey. The King Cobra, like all venomous snakes, have hollow fangs.

These fangs can be about half an inch because they need to be able to fit in the snake’s mouth without penetrating the bottom of the jaw. The fangs are angled back slightly to allow the mouth to close comfortably.

The angle of the fangs is also important because it helps move the unfortunate prey further into the mouth. When the King Cobra attacks, it will sink its teeth into you and a muscle will allow the venom to start flowing.

The venom of the King Cobra is made to paralyze the prey. It shuts down body functions, like breathing, to help incapacitate their food.

This is the process of a King Cobra that caught the attention of scientists. They wanted to know what properties provided the Cobra with such great power over a nervous system. This is what led to the search and capture of many cobras for medical research. 

10 Quick Facts

  • The male King Cobras are physically bigger than the females. This is the opposite of most snake breeds which usually have a larger female. 
  • Lifespan: approximately 20 years
  • The study of King Cobra venom has been a catalyst for the development of pain relievers such as Cobroxin and Nyloxin.
  • King Cobras create a sound that is closer to a growl than a hiss when they want to ward off threats. 
  • King Cobra venom damages the nervous system. 
  • Their venom can take down an elephant in a few hours. 
  • King Cobras can climb AND swim.
  • King Cobras can raise their bodies up and move quickly while their heads are raised.
  • King Cobra males challenge other males to wrestling contests to win females during mating season. 
  •  King Cobras are commonly used in Indian “snake charmer” traditions.

Snake Charmers

The most I’ve ever seen of a King Cobra is in action movies or atop ancient prayer temples in India. We’re all familiar with the idea of a snake charmer that hypnotizes a dangerous reptile with a few beautiful notes from a magical instrument.

The snake usually involved in these displays are Cobras because it is a well known deadly snake caught and tamed to the mesmerizing tune of a flute of some kind.

The reality of the situation seems to be that the snake is following the actual instrument rather than the sound. I have found a few sources that claim that the Cobras are defanged and the venom sacs are taken out before the actual “charming” display begins.

They also say that pain is inflicted on the snake to make them follow the movement of the flute without trying to escape or attack the charmer.

I am not an expert about this, and there are many varying accounts about how snake charmers do it that exist because it is an ancient tradition. They don’t share their secrets openly, and we get to stay in the dark completely mesmerized by the idea and power of a snake charmer almost as much as the Cobra is. 

Are They Endangered?

We frequently only hear the news about animals that make the Endangered Species list in our lives. We have many campaigns to “Save” or protect vulnerable species. There is literally a list for these types of animals. The King Cobra made that list in recent years.

The King Cobra has been marked as “vulnerable” due to many factors threatening their existence. Forests, the main habitat for King Cobras, are constantly being torn down to make way for businesses, housing, or farmland.

Another reason these snakes are nearing endangerment is that they are caught and used for medical research. After the discovery that their venom could lead to pain relief breakthroughs from arthritis and other ailments, these snakes were coveted for further medical study. 

They are also highly regarded for their meat and skins in some cultures. A simple reason they aren’t a concern for protection is that they are a threat to humans who live near them.

We don’t like to be around creatures that have the potential to cause us or our families harm, so we have little regard for their safety. We choose to protect things we like and call for the death of those we fear.

Efforts have been put in place to protect some of the habitats of the King Cobra and other species. The cobra is apart of many ancient traditions and is an integral part of some cultures.

Even though they are deadly, they have given us many resources in the way of entertainment, education, and medical advancement. They may be scary, but boy are they fascinating!

Related Question

What is a female King Cobra called? King Cobra is not a male-specific name. “King” is used to refer to the fact that these Cobras eat smaller cobras and other snakes. “King” is not meant to dictate gender. Female King Cobras are referred to as such.

How dangerous is a King Cobra? The King Cobra is not the most dangerous snake in the world but can produce enough venom to take down multiple people or one elephant depending on size. Neurotoxins in the venom are what makes it so deadly because that shuts down the nervous system and essentially incapacitates the prey.  They can be aggressive if they are threatened but do not go out hunting humans, so you shouldn’t be afraid of them as an active predator.

How much venom does a King Cobra have? The amount of venom that can be found in a snake at one time varies from one snake to another. The main dictator of this measurement is the size of the snake. A King Cobra is very large and can keep a lot of venom in its sac compared to a smaller snake. In one bite a King Cobra can emit approximately .2 ounces of venom. This doesn’t seem like a whole lot, but it is potent enough to kill many people. 

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