What is a Spitting Cobra?

Kelly Ferguson

A spitting cobra is a member of the Elapidae family of venomous snakes. There are many different species of spitting cobra in various sizes, colors, and patterns, with diets that generally include amphibians, birds, and small mammals, though some will eat lizards or other snakes. They are named for their ability to project venom from the fangs into the face of an enemy. This ability is used as a defense mechanism against attackers, not as a method of disabling prey. Species of spitting cobra are found in many countries, mostly in tropical or subtropical regions.

Spitting cobras are found mostly in tropical or subtropical regions.
Spitting cobras are found mostly in tropical or subtropical regions.

When threatened, spitting cobras display the same hood that most cobras are known for. A muscle contraction then squeezes the venom gland and sprays the venom out through tiny holes in the fangs. Spitting cobras can be remarkably accurate even when aiming at a moving target, capable of hitting most oncoming attackers in the eyes from over 5 feet (1.5 m) away. The venom spray can travel much farther, up to or beyond 10 feet (3 m), but accuracy declines with increased distance. It must aim for the eyes because the venom of a spitting cobra will not cause damage to unbroken skin, but can cause blindness if even a small drop enters the eye and is not properly treated within minutes.

Studies concerning how the spitting cobra is able to hit its targets with such accuracy have concluded that the snakes are able to use the movements of the target’s head to predict where the eyes will be a split second later. This accuracy allows them to conserve their venom, spraying only the little bit needed to cause significant damage. Additionally, the snakes are able to project the venom in patterns that cover a larger surface area than a regular stream would, increasing their chances of hitting the eyes. Some scientists speculate that they evolved this defense mechanism to avoid being trampled by large animals, similar to how a rattlesnake uses its rattle.

Venom can also be delivered at close range via a bite. A bite from a spitting cobra also requires immediate medical attention, as it may ultimately lead to serious tissue damage or death if appropriate measures are not taken. Once the snake has spit its venom, however, it is more likely to avoid further confrontation than it is to waste the extra venom needed for a bite.

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