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Geography in the News: Cobras

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

MISSING COBRA! EEEEK!

The escape of a highly venomous Egyptian cobra in March 2011 forced part of the Bronx Zoo’s reptile unit to close for more than a week. The 20-inch-long (52 cm) snake was found within the zoo’s Reptile House less than 100 feet (30 m) from the enclosure she somehow escaped six days earlier. Thankfully, this cobra, just one of several varieties, never entered any public area.

The event raised public interest in cobras and their natural habitats and geographic distribution.

Despite its name, the Egyptian cobra (Naja haje) is found in Egypt and throughout many areas of Africa. Its natural range geographically is across most of Africa north of the Sahara and across the savannas of West Africa. It is also distributed south of the Sahara around the Congo basin and east to Kenya and Tanzania. Some southern parts of the Arabian Peninsula also have Egyptian cobras.

The Egyptian cobra prefers dry to moist savanna and semi-desert regions for habitat. The snake lives in areas with at least some water and vegetation, never residing in pure desert. 

gitn_1091_NGS Cobras
Geography in the News

With a reputation as one of the most deadly snakes in the world, the Egyptian cobra’s venom is so toxic it can kill a human in 15 minutes and a grown elephant in three hours. Most of the snakes are approximately 5 to 8 feet (1.5 to 2.4 m) in length, weighing up to 20 pounds (9 kg). Interestingly, it is believed that Cleopatra, along with two of her attendants, committed suicide using an Egyptian cobra (also called an asp).

While the lost Bronx Zoo Egyptian cobra made the nightly news, its cousin, the King cobra (Ophiophagus hannah), is actually better known. This is the cobra of snake charmer fame—the one that can raise its head and up to one-third its body length (3-6 feet or 1-2 m) straight off the ground and still move forward to strike. In that posture, a King cobra can look a person in the eye. Needless to say, this is certainly a menacing reptile.

The King cobra is in the family Elapidae, which is sometimes called the cobra family. More than 200 species of elapid exist throughout the world, except Europe and Antarctica. They all differ in habitat and appearance, though all are venomous and have short, fixed fangs. Surprisingly, the King cobra does not share the same genus as the six true cobras—those, like the Egyptian cobra, are in the genus Naja.

The King cobra is the longest venomous snake in the world, growing to a length up to 18 feet (5.5 m). A single bite from an adult snake can transmit up to two-tenths of a fluid ounce (7 ml) of neurotoxin—enough to kill 20-40 grown humans.

The geographic range of the King cobra is quite different from that of the Egyptian cobra. While its distribution is widespread across South and Southeast Asia, actually viewing the elusive snake in its natural habitat is uncommon. Its color can vary from region to region. The snake’s natural range stretches from India eastward to Vietnam, though southern China and the Philippines. It also spreads southeast through Malaysia and Indonesia. Much of the King cobra’s natural habitat has been lost to deforestation in India, and so few kings still exist there.

The borders of undisturbed forest, clearings and bamboo thickets make an ideal habitat for the King cobra. In northern India, the snake resides in dense highland forests of the Himalaya foothills. It can be found in agricultural areas, such as tea plantations or in the outlying areas of villages and abandoned buildings. 

King cobras spend plenty of time in trees and bushes looking for prey. They have a diet that includes other snakes (both venomous and nonvenomous), lizards, eggs and small mammals. King cobras are comfortable in the water.

The King cobra is considered a very aggressive snake. Besides its ability to raise up its body when threatened, it also flattens its head to produce the famous hood, shows its fangs and hisses loudly. In fact, its hiss sounds more like a growl, producing a distinct sound of much lower frequency than that of most snakes.

If provoked or cornered, the King cobra reacts very quickly. Its strike distance of seven feet (2 m) often causes humans to misjudge a safe distance from the snake. In most cases, however, King cobras prefer to slither away quietly when left undisturbed by humans. Perhaps surprising is the fact that cobras have enemies other than humans, including the mongoose, wild boar and civet cat.

Throughout its range, only an estimated five deaths occur each year from King cobras. That number is only about one-fifth of the annual deaths caused by rattlesnakes in North America.

Many people have frightened reactions to seeing a snake of any variety. The cobra—even housed in the safe environs of the Bronx Zoo (or not)—causes most people to watch their steps. 

And that is Geography in the NewsTM. 

Sources:

Modified from GITN #1091 MISSING COBRA! EEEEK!, Apr. 29, 2011; http://articles.nydailynews.com/2011-03-31/local/29386486_1_egyptian-cobra-jim-breheny-bronx-zoo; http://www.cobras.com; http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/31/nation/la-naw-escaped-snake 20110401; and http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/reptiles/king-cobra/#close-modal

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.