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King Cobra

Not a true cobra


Order: Squamata

Suborder: Serpentes (Ophidia)

Family: Elapidae

Genus & Species: Ophiophagus hannah

APPEARANCE

Unlike its name suggests, the king cobra is not a true cobra, but is placed in a separate genus from them. The king cobra is longer than the true cobras in fact, it is the longest venomous snake in the world. They average at 13 ft (3.9 m) in length, bu can attain a length of 18 ft (5.4 m). To put this in perspective, the king cobra is longer than most crocodiles. Although they generally move with their body flat on the ground, they can rear up to 1/3 of their total body length, making them up to 6 ft (1.8 m) tall as tall as a full-grown human.

King cobras have the basic snake appearance, with a long, round, scaled body that tapers to a pointed tail. The head is flat on top, with two black beady eyes located on the front. The neck is exaggerated due to folds of loose skin on either side of it. When the king cobra becomes scared or agitated, ribs in the neck flatten out, expanding the folds of skin and creating a long, narrow hood. This hood lacks patterns of any kind, distinguishing it from true cobras.

King cobras vary greatly in colour. Depending on where they live, they could be brown, black, yellow, or green, interspersed with yellow or white crossbands (chevrons). Generally, king cobras found in darker forests are darker in colour than those found in open forests or savannas. The colour of the belly also varies, from a uniform light cream-colour to a creamy colour interspersed with darker bars.

King cobras shed their skin 4-6 times per year for adults, every month for juveniles. To get the skin to start to peel, the king cobra will rub its body against rough edges. By the time the shedding is complete, the king cobra has new skin, fangs, teeth, eyes, and tongue tip. Shedding will leave the king cobra with poor eyesight for up to 10 days.

King cobras are covered with scales, which are composed of keratin. The number and arrangement of the scales remains the same with every shedding. The scales on the back are small and rounded; the scales on the belly stretch the entire width of the belly and are arranged in a single downwards column.

King cobras are most noted for their venom, which is located in salivary glands behind the eyes these glands are attached to two hollow, erect fangs. These fangs are inch (12 mm) in length and are attached to the upper jaw. The lower jaw consists of two bones loosely hinged together, which can allow large prey to be swallowed.

King cobras have good eyesight, being able to see 330 ft (100 m) away. They lack external ears, but can still hear due to sound traveling through their skin to the jaw bone, then to the quadrate bone (next to the ear bone), and from there to the inner eardrum. They taste and smell with their forked tongue, drawing scents into their mouth which are then recognized by the Jacobson's organ. Holes in the trachea emit a low hiss resembling a dog's growl.

King cobras are more intelligent than true cobras, being able to distinguish their caretakers from strangers. They have a life span of 20 years.

HABITAT

The king cobra can be found throughout southeast Asia, from India to southern China to Malaysia, from Indonesia to the Philippines.

King cobras are generally found in dense or open rainforests, as well as mangrove swamps, bamboo thickets, savannas, and even around human settlements. They are excellent swimmers, often being found near streams, and are avid tree climbers. They are often found in mountainous regions of India, up to altitudes of 6500 ft (1981 m) above sea level. They hunt during the day and during the night.

King cobras spend solitary lives, getting together just to mate. They may, however, mate with the same snake each year.

FOOD

King cobras do not have the typical diet of rodents associated with most snake species. Instead, their diet is composed solely of reptiles, namely other snakes. They usually prey upon non- venomous snakes such as Asian rat snakes and pythons, but will also prey upon Indian cobras, kraits, and even smaller king cobras. They will also feed on lizards. In zoos, some are found to be picky eaters, only feeding on one type of snake.

King cobras hunt for their food by smelling the air with their forked tongue. When they find a suitable quarry, they rear up to 1/3 their body length and strike. If their prey flees, they are able to follow in this upright position for long distances. When they catch their prey, muscles send the venom from the glands, through the fangs, and into the victim. The venom is a neurotoxin, and in humans can cause pain, swelling, hypertension, nausea, abdominal pain, drowsiness, limb paralysis, unconsciousness, and finally death. The symptoms begin to show 15-30 minutes after the attack. Death in humans can be prevented by an anti-venin.

The prey is swallowed whole, and the king cobra may not feed again for several weeks.

ENEMIES

The king cobra has few natural enemies as an adult, but the juveniles do. They are preyed upon by mongooses, civets, army ants, and giant centipedes, and the eggs may be eaten or trampled by wild boar and, once again, mongooses.

The king cobra's biggest enemy is man. Habitat destruction drives them into populated areas, where they are killed due to misplaced fears that they are savage attackers. The truth is, a king cobra, unless defending its nest, is more likely to slither away than to attack. There are fewer than 5 king cobra-related fatalities each year.

King cobras are also killed for commercial purposes. The skin, meat, and bile are used in ancient Chinese medications, and the venom is used to treat tuberculosis, cholera, and arthritic pain, as well as being used to block nerve transmissions and as an anti-venin.

King cobras are considered to be threatened.

BREEDING

King cobras reach sexual maturity at 5-6 years of age. The breeding season begins in January, and is evidenced by a shedding of their skin. In females, the shedding releases pheromones, which help males to find a female. When they find each other, the male entwines its body around the female, and they may stay in that position for several hours. The male's sperm eventually fertilizes eggs, and the female becomes gravid (snake term for pregnant). The female can store the sperm for several years, using it to impregnate herself several times.

The female lays 20-50 white eggs two months after mating. The eggs are laid in a nest made during the two- month period. King cobras are the only snakes known to make a nest, perhaps a sign of their intelligence. After a 60-70 day incubation period, the eggs hatch. Just before the juveniles emerge, the female abandons them, possibly to keep her from eating her young.

The juveniles are glossy black at birth with yellow bands. The babies measure 14 inches (35 cm) in length and are about inch (1.25 cm) wide. Their venom is just as potent as that of an adult, and after their first molt at 10 days of age, they are ready to hunt.

RELATIVES

The king cobra is the only species in its genus.

RESOURCES CITED

1. www.nationalgeographic.com/features/97/kingcobra/
2. www.redcross.or.th/science/science/king_cobra.html
3. animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/ophiophagus/O._
hannah$narrative.html
4. www-surgery.ucsd.edu/ENT/DAVIDSON/snake/Ophiopha.htm
5. www.beavton.k12.or.US/vose/kidopedia/cobra.html
6. www.the-planet.net/co/animal/kcobra.html
7. www.zoomwhales.com/subjects/reptiles/snakes/kingcobra.shtml
8. www.gov.sg/moh/mohiss/poison/prkingco.html
9. "King Cobra" Wildlife Fact File, IMPub Inc, USA

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