Northern India, east to southern People's Republic of China, including Hong Kong and Hainan; south throughout the Malay Peninsula, and east to western Indonesia and the Philippines.
Biogeographic Regions: oriental (Native )
Distribution: Bangladesh, Myanmar (= Burma), Cambodia, China (Fukien, Kwangtung, Hong Kong, Kwangsi, Hainan, Yunnan, SW Sichuan, SE Xizang = Tibet), India (Karnataka (Dandeli) [J.Kadapatti, pers. comm.]; Arunachal Pradesh (Miao - Changlang district, Itanagar – Papum Pare district) [A. Captain, pers. Comm.], Sikkim, WEst Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Andaman Islands), Nepal, Indonesia (Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, Borneo, Bangka, Bali, Mentawai Islands, Riau Islands), Singapore, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, W Malaysia (Pulau Tioman), Philippines (Balabac, Jolo, Luzon, Mindanao, Mindoro, Negros, Palawan, Panay). Elevation up to 2000 m.
Type locality: “Sunderbuns” (= Sunderbans, West Bengal, E India) and “jungle not far from Calcutta”.
The King Cobra's average size is 10-12 feet, but can reach 18 feet. The full grown King Cobra is yellow, green, brown, or black. There are usually yellowish or white cross-bars or chevrons on its body. The belly may be uniform in color or ornamented with bars. The throat is light yellow or cream-colored. The juveniles are jet-black, with yellow or white cross-bars on the body and tail and four similar cross-bars on the head. The King Cobra is regarded as a fierce and aggressive snake, and its length and size give it an awesome appearance.
Habitat and Ecology
Near streams in dense or open forest, bamboo thickets, adjacent agricultural areas, and dense mangrove swamps.
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest ; rainforest ; scrub forest
Ophiophagus hannah normally restricts its diet to cold-blooded animals, particularly other snakes. Some specimens develop a rigid diet of a single species of snake and will refuse any other type. The snakes eaten by the King Cobra are mostly the larger harmless species, such as Asian rat snakes, dhamans, and pythons up to about 10 feet in length.
Life History and Behavior
Status: captivity: 17.1 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
King Cobras are oviparous and lay 21-40 eggs. The female pushes leaves and branches into a nest pile where the eggs are incubated by the elevated temperatures of decomposition. The female remains on top of the nest to guard the eggs, and the male also remains close by. During the brood care period, the king cobra tends to be very aggressive toward approaching humans. Breeding usually occurs from January through April. The eggs of the king cobra incubate during spring and summer, hatching in the fall.
Evolution and Systematics
Pocket-like structures extending from the trachea of a king cobra help produce the snake's growl-like hisses by serving as low-frequency resonance chambers.
"In 1991, studies conducted by Dr. Bruce Young of Hollins College, Virginia, with king cobras (Ophiophagus hannah) suggest that although they have only vestigial ears, they are able to hear their characteristic, unusually deep, growl-like hisses. These are believed to be produced via pocket-like structures called diverticula extending from the trachea that seem to function as low-frequency resonance chambers. Clearly, there is still a lot to learn about the mechanisms and limits of snake vocalization, especially in view of the controversial claims that have been made for the abilities of certain species." (Shuker 2001:155)
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
- Shuker, KPN. 2001. The Hidden Powers of Animals: Uncovering the Secrets of Nature. London: Marshall Editions Ltd. 240 p.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Ophiophagus hannah
There are 2 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank. Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species. See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Ophiophagus hannah
Public Records: 2
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
King Cobras, as well as all snakes, are threatened from the destruction of their habitats, and by persecution by humans afraid of them
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: vulnerable
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Economic Importance for Humans: Negative
The venom of Ophiophagus hannah is very potent. It is a strong neurotoxin, which affects respiratory centres in the medulla of the brain. Death results from respiratory arrest and cardiac failure. Death may occur in a very short time, but, as with any bite, the location of the bite and the efficacy of first aid and medical treatment may delay or prevent death. The anti-venom, sometimes referred to as anti-venin, reverses the actions of the neurotoxins (proteins and enzymes). Anti-venin, even after five or six decades, is still the most trusted and commonly used method in controlling snake venom poisoning.
Economic Importance for Humans: Positive
King Cobras are among the most attractive highlights in large display terrariums at zoos.
The king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is the world's longest venomous snake, with a length up to 5.6 m (18.5 ft). This species is widespread throughout Southeast Asia and parts of India, and is found mostly in forested areas. The king cobra can be highly aggressive and agile, and can deliver a large quantity of highly potent venom in a single bite. It is regarded as one of the most dangerous and feared Asiatic snakes due to various factors.
The King Cobra is a large and powerful snake, averaging 3.6–4 m (12–13 feet) in length and typically weighing about 6 kg (13.2 lb). A particularly large specimen was kept captive at the London Zoo, and grew to 5.7 m (18.8 ft) before being euthanized upon the outbreak of World War II. Despite their large size, king cobras are fast and agile.
The skin of this snake is either olive-green, tan, or black, and it has faint, pale yellow cross bands down the length of the body. The belly is cream or pale yellow, and the scales are smooth. Juveniles are shiny black with narrow yellow bands (can be mistaken for a banded krait, but readily identified with its expanded hood). The head of a mature snake can be quite massive and bulky in appearance, though like all snakes, they can expand their jaws to swallow large prey items. It has proteroglyph dentition, meaning it has two short, fixed fangs in the front of the mouth which channel venom into the prey like hypodermic needles. The male is larger and thicker than the female. The average lifespan of a king cobra is about 20 years.
The king cobra is the sole member of genus Ophiophagus, while most other cobras are members of the genus Naja. They can be distinguished from other cobras by size and hood marks. King cobras are larger than other cobras, and the stripe on the neck is like the symbol "^" instead of a double or single eye(s) shape that may be seen in most of the other cobras. A foolproof method of identification is if on the head, clearly visible, is the presence of a pair of large scales known as occipitals, at the back of the top of the head. These are behind the usual "nine-plate" arrangement typical of colubrids and elapids, and are unique to the king cobra.
Dorsal scales: midbody 15 rows; Ventral scales: Males 235-250, females 239-265; Tail: Subcaudal scales single or paired in each row, 83-96 in males and 77-98 in females.
The king cobra is distributed across South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the southern areas of East Asia (southern China) where it is not common. It lives in dense highland forests, preferring areas dotted with lakes and streams. King cobra populations have dropped in some areas of its range because of the destruction of forests. It is listed as an Appendix II Animal within CITES.
King cobras, like other snakes, receive chemical information ("smell") via their forked tongues, which pick up scent particles and transfer them to a special sensory receptor (Jacobson's organ) located in the roof of its mouth. When the scent of a meal is detected, the snake flicks its tongue to gauge the prey's location (the twin forks of the tongue acting in stereo); it also uses its keen eyesight (king cobras are able to detect moving prey almost 100 m [300 feet] away), intelligence and sensitivity to earth-borne vibration to track its prey. Following envenomation, the king cobra will begin to swallow its struggling prey while its toxins begin the digestion of its victim. King cobras, like all snakes, have flexible jaws. The jaw bones are connected by pliable ligaments, enabling the lower jaw bones to move independently, enabling the King cobra to swallow its prey whole. The expansion of the jaw enables the snake to swallow prey much larger than its head.
The king cobra can be highly aggressive if provoked. When threatened, it raises up the anterior portion of its body, extending the neck, showing the fangs and hissing loudly. (Bioacoustic analysis of the "growl" of the king cobra has shown that it differs significantly from other snakes. Generally a typical snake hiss has a broad-frequency span (~3,000 to 13,000 Hz) with a dominant frequency near 7,500 Hz, whereas the "growl" of the king cobra consists of frequencies below 2,500 Hz, with a dominant frequency near 600 Hz.) It can be easily irritated by closely approaching objects or sudden movements. The king cobra attacks rapidly, and the strike distance is about 2 m (7 feet); people can easily misjudge the safe distance. The king cobra may deliver multiple bites in a single attack, or bite and hold on. Although it is a highly dangerous snake, it, just like other snakes, prefers to escape unless it is cornered or provoked.
If a king cobra encounters a natural predator, such as the mongoose, which has some resistance to the neurotoxins, the snake generally tries to flee. If unable to do so, it forms the distinctive cobra hood and emits a hiss, sometimes with feigned closed-mouth strikes. These efforts usually prove to be very effective, especially since it is more dangerous than other mongoose prey, as well as being much too large for the small mammal to kill with ease.
The king cobra's genus name, Ophiophagus, means "snake-eater", and its diet consists primarily of other snakes, including ratsnakes, sizeable pythons and even other venomous snakes (including kraits, cobras and smaller members of its own species). When food is scarce, they may also feed on other small vertebrates, such as lizards, birds, and rodents. In some cases, the cobra may "constrict" its prey, such as birds and larger rodents, using its muscular body, though this is uncommon. After a large meal, the snake may live for many months without another one because of its slow metabolic rate. The king cobra's most common meal is the ratsnake; pursuit of this species often brings king cobras close to human settlements.
During a bite, venom is forced through the snake's half-inch (1.25 cm) fangs into the wound, and quickly attacks the victim's central nervous system, inducing severe pain, blurred vision, vertigo, drowsiness, and paralysis. Envenomation progresses to cardiovascular collapse, and the victim falls into a coma. Death soon follows due to respiratory failure.
In the past, the LD50 of the king cobra's venom was treated as 1.6 mg/kg – 1.8 mg/kg (which was one of the least venomous elapids). However, in recent toxicology study, the LD50 of Chinese king cobra venom was found to be 0.34 mg/kg. In the same test, many Naja species found in the same habitats (such as the Chinese cobra) possess larger values, thus showing that the king cobra can actually be more venomous than many other cobras based on LD50. The king cobra is also capable of delivering larger quantities of venom than most other snakes, injecting a 380-600 mg dose in a single bite on average. It was reported that a single bite from this species can kill an adult Asian elephant. A bite from the king cobra can cause the death of an adult human within 15 minutes, though the average death time recorded is between 30–45 minutes after envenomation. The mortality rate from a bite can be over 75%,depending upon treatment details. It is regarded as one of the deadliest snakes in the world.
There are two types of antivenom made specifically to treat king cobra envenomations. The Red Cross in Thailand manufactures one, and the Central Research Institute in India manufactures the other; however, both are made in small quantities and are not widely available. Ohanin, a protein component of the venom, causes hypolocomotion and hyperalgesia in mammals. Other components have cardiotoxic, cytotoxic and neurotoxic effects. In Thailand, a concoction of alcohol and the ground root of turmeric is ingested, which has been clinically shown to create a strong resilience against the venom of the king cobra, and other snakes with neurotoxic venom.
The king cobra is unusual among snakes in that the female king cobra is a very dedicated parent. She makes a nest for her eggs, scraping up leaves and other debris into a mound in which to deposit them, and remains in the nest until the young hatch.
A female usually deposits 20 to 40 eggs into the mound, which acts as an incubator. She stays with the eggs and guards the mound tenaciously, rearing up into a threat display if any large animal gets too close.
Inside the mound the eggs are incubated at a steady 28 °C (82 °F). When the eggs start to hatch, instinct causes the female to leave the nest and find prey to eat so she does not eat her young. The baby king cobras have a length of 45 to 55 centimeters (18 to 22 in). They are highly aggressive, and their venom is as deadly as that of an adult.
In Burma, king cobras are often used by female snake charmers. The charmer is usually tattooed with three pictograms, using an ink mixed with snake venom; superstition holds that it protects the charmer from the snake. The charmer kisses the snake on the top of its head at the end of the show.
King cobra in St. Louis Zoo
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Ophiophagus hannah|
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