What is a Cobra?

Sara Schmidt

The cobra is widely known as one of the most venomous snakes on Earth. Though the shy reptile seldom attacks humans, a single bite from the snake is often lethal. Most cobras can be found in dry regions of Southeast Asia, Europe, Australia, and India. The venomous snakes are also known as the only snakes in the world who build nests for their eggs.

The monocled cobra is often used by snake charmers.
The monocled cobra is often used by snake charmers.

Cobra snakes are members of the elapidae family. Over 100 types of this snake exist. The most aggressive type, the king cobra, contains enough venom in a single bite to kill an elephant, or 20 people. Cobras may grow up to 13 feet (4 meters) in length, and can weigh up to 20 pounds (9 kilograms).

Cobras are venomous snakes.
Cobras are venomous snakes.

Snakes in the cobra family are distinguished by their hoods, or rib extensions, that extend behind their eyes. These hoods flare out when the snake hisses and becomes irritable or angry. The markings and coloration of the cobra vary by species. Some, like the spectacled cobra, feature eyeglass-shaped patterns, while others, like the king cobra, have stripes. Most cobras are brown, olive, or yellow, and may feature black or white spots.

Cobras have highly toxic bites.
Cobras have highly toxic bites.

Members of this snake family may live up to 20 years in the wild. Once grown, the only species that threaten the snake are humans and the mongoose. Nearly any small animal can be eaten by these types of snakes. Most cobras prefer to eat small rodents and birds. Eggs, fish, and lizards may be a part of their diet as well. King cobras in particular enjoy eating other snakes.

The king cobra is the most aggressive type of cobra.
The king cobra is the most aggressive type of cobra.

King cobras are known for fiercely protecting their eggs during incubation, which usually lasts two and one-half months. Though both parents guard the nest, mother cobras in particular often refuse to leave the next unguarded until the young snakes hatch. A typical nest will contain 20 to 40 eggs. Hatchlings are typically 20 inches (50 centimeters) in length, and are born with full-strength venom.

Though many people fear these types of snakes, the predators can actually be helpful to humans. Like many other snakes, cobras eat pests, such as rodents and other snakes, that typically bother humans. Cobra venom is also used in some medications, such as pain relievers. Though king cobras are well-known for their use by snake charmers of Southern Asia, the snakes cannot hear the music itself. Instead, the snakes respond to the movement and vibrations of the flute.

Cobras often eat pests such as rodents.
Cobras often eat pests such as rodents.

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Discussion Comments


@Grivusangel-- Absolutely, every living creature has a meaningful purpose and place in nature. If their existence wasn't necessary, God wouldn't have created them in the first place. So the cobra is vital to the ecosystem just like any other living thing.


@ysmina-- I'm not sure what makes a cobra move, but I do know that the king cobra has an important place in Hinduism. It is regarded as a god by some and there is an even a Hindu holiday commemorating the king cobra god. In Indian films, I have seen characters pray when they see a king cobra, or even offer milk to it.

The cobra is also associated with Lord Shiva in Hinduism. Lord Shiva is depicted with snakes around his neck. Cobra is a symbol of fear, danger, desires and lust. So the image signifies that Lord Shiva has overcome these harmful feelings and thoughts and that he is afraid of no one.


Most of us think of Indian snake charmers when we think of the cobra. I found out just recently that cobras do not in fact have ears and cannot hear. I was shocked to find out that they do not move to the music of the snake charmers, but rather the movement the charmer makes with the flute.

I think that's very interesting but I also think that there must be more to it. They may not hear the music, but can't cobras feel the vibration of the music? Maybe that affects their movement too?


I remember seeing a wildlife show (I think it was Jeff Corwin) about a king cobra. He was in India with an ex-pat American cobra catcher. They were visiting a tea plantation where the tea pickers had headed for the hills after spotting a king cobra among the plants. I'd have hauled out of there, too.

Anyway, the catcher had this long sack that had a drawstring top on it. He had two assistants find the cobra (don't you want *that* job?), and then run it toward him. He held the sack open so it looked liked a hole in the ground and in the snake went. He closed it shut and bagged the cobra. He took it somewhere and released it. So not interested in that profession!


Much as I hate to say it, most snakes do have a purpose in the ecosystem. Let me just say I'm not a fan, and I'm glad cobras are not native to the US. I'd rather take my chances with a rattlesnake any day.

I do remember seeing a website posted by a guy who used to keep "hot" snakes. He had a tree cobra that he said made a real effort to bite him every time he had to clean the cage, feed the snake, whatever... So they're not always that shy. He said that particular snake was psycho.

I'm also glad the only elapids found in the US are coral snakes, which are small, extremely shy and somewhat rare.

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