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Introduction; Habitat and Range; Physical Description and Behavior; Types of Cobras; Cobra Bites and Venom; Hunting and Diet; Cobras and Humans
Cobra (snake), name for a group of venomous snakes known for their hooded threat display and dangerous bites. Cobras are found in Africa and Asia, and they have held a special place in human culture from ancient Egypt to modern India. About 30 species of snakes are commonly called cobras, including the king cobra (the world’s largest poisonous snake) and varieties that can “spit” venom. The name cobra comes from a Portuguese word for “snake” (short for cobra de capello “snake with a hood”).
Cobras belong to the same snake family (Elapidae) as coral snakes and mambas. Not all types of snakes popularly called cobras may be directly related to the same ancestors. Rearing up to display a flattened neck that forms a hood and spraying venom are abilities that apparently evolved more than once in different members of the elapid family of snakes.
The different species of cobra live in habitats ranging from tropical rain forests and swamps to savannas and deserts. Because many cobra species prey on small rodents, the snakes may hunt or live in areas around human settlements or in fields where crops grow—both places where rodents thrive.
Cobras are found in most parts of Africa except for the Sahara Desert. Their range extends through the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia and into Southeast Asia as far as Indonesia and the Philippines, and into southern China.
The famous hood of a cobra is created by elongated ribs that extend the loose skin of the neck behind the snake’s head. Cobras raise up the front part of their bodies and flatten their necks to display the hood when they feel threatened or disturbed, often hissing loudly to add a further warning. The neck ribs can be folded back when the snake moves along the ground.
Like most snakes, cobras use their forked tongues to detect smells or taste objects. The flicking tongue picks up molecules in the air or along the ground. The tongue then passes over a special organ inside the mouth called Jacobson’s organ. Although cobras are not sensitive to air-borne sounds, they can detect sounds through the ground. Bones in their jaws carry vibrations to the ear. Most species have relatively poor eyesight and hunt at dusk or at night. An exception is the king cobra, which is active in the daytime and can see objects over 100 m (330 ft) away.
Male cobras are typically larger than females. All cobras lay eggs except for ringhals, which give birth to live young. The females of some species guard their eggs but only female king cobras build nests.
Species of cobra differ from each other in size, habits, and range. The term “true cobra” is used for species that belong to the genus Naja, notable for proportionately larger hoods with an eye-pattern on the back. Species range from 1 and 1.5 m (40 and 60 in) to 3 m (10 ft) long. True cobras are found in much of Africa, Asia, and parts of the Middle East.
Water cobras are found in Central Africa and grow to 1.8 to 2 m (6 to 7 ft) in length. Burrowing cobras, also called many-banded snakes, live in parts of the Congo region and in Cameroon, and grow to 60 cm (2 ft). Tree cobras are found in tropical forests in central and west Africa and average 2 to 2.7 m (7 to 9 ft) in length.
The king cobra, also known as the hamadryad, is the longest of all poisonous snakes, averaging 3.6 m (12 ft) but sometimes reaching 5.4 m (18 ft) in length. It is found in southern regions of Asia, including India, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Desert black cobras live in deserts in the Middle East, and can reach 1.3 m (4 ft) in length. Shieldnose cobras, also called African coral snakes, are 60 to 76 cm (2 to 2.5 ft) long, and occur in dry, sandy areas in southern Africa. Ringhals (also spelled rinkhals) are found in southern Africa and average about 1 m (40 in) in length, sometimes reaching 1.5 m (5 ft).
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