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| Last Updated:: 22/02/2016

Rainforests remain among last refuges for King Cobras








The longest venomous snake in the world, King Cobra, was once widely distributed across South and Southeast Asia. While the exact population number is not known, it is estimated that the population size has declined globally by at least 30% over the last 15-18 years, an estimated three-generation period.


The Western Ghats are known to be an important habitat for the King Cobra and are among the last vestiges for the ecologically important species. Renowned Indian herpetologist Romulus Whitaker hoped that the King Cobra might emerge as the flagship species for India's vanishing rainforests.


"The Western Ghats is the only remaining patch of protected forests with perennial evergreen vegetation in the south-western part of the Indian subcontinent. Till a few centuries ago, it was distributed more widely throughout the subcontinent, but its habitat has shrunk severely since then," said Indraneel Kulkarni, an independent researcher.

The King Cobra is an elusive snake, preferring a habitat of undisturbed forests in which it thrives. The temperature, humidity, rainfall, vegetation, prey and predators - all play a role in helping the magnificent creature blend in perfectly with the Western Ghats as its home, Kulkarni added.

Some snakes are known to be opportunistic cannibals, feeding on other snakes when there is a shortage of prey or under other circumstances. The King Cobra, however, feeds primarily on other snakes including those that are venomous. Its scientific name, Ophiophagus hannah, hints at this. Ophiophagus is derived from the Greek word for snake-eater, Kulkarni explained.

King cobras use venom to subdue their prey. Rising up over its intended victim, the King Cobra digs its fangs in and holds the prey in a suffocating grip until it stops struggling. The venom attacks the snake's nervous system until, eventually, it suffocates. The King Cobra then swallows the snake, which will be gradually digested bones, scales and all.

The King Cobras of the Western Ghats have been known to show interesting dietary preferences. Their most common prey are rat-snakes, but during the monsoon months, researchers have found them often feeding on the pit-vipers of the Western Ghats, Kulkarni added.

Certain bizarre instances of feeding behaviour have also been recorded. For instance, there is a record of a male King Cobra killing a female following an unsuccessful mating attempt. Later, it tried to feed on the female snake but gave up, he said.

When two male cobras meet, they engage in a strange encounter resembling a ritualistic dance. The cobras rise four feet off the ground, twine around each other and attempt to push each other down. The first snake to pin its opponent to the ground is termed the winner, Kulkarni said.


"The reason for this strange behaviour is not fully understood. It may be to establish their territory or a struggle over females," he added.


Another interesting aspect of the reproductive behaviour of King Cobras is the tendency of the females to build and guard over nests - the only snake in the world known to do so. The female is very selective in the leaves she picks out to build the nest so that the humidity and temperature inside is perfect for the hatching process, Kulkarni said.


"She stays with the eggs and guards the nest tenaciously for 60 to 90 days. Just before the eggs are about to hatch, instinct causes her to leave her nest. This is because the female has not fed on prey throughout this period and in her famished state she should not be tempted to eat her own young ones," he explained.




Source: The Times of India