cobra, name for African and Asian snakes of the family Elapidae that are equipped with inflatable neck hoods. The family also includes the African mambas, the Asian kraits, the New World coral snakes and a large number of Australian snakes. All members of the family are poisonous and have short, rigid fangs attached at the front of the mouth. Cobras are found in most of Africa and in S Asia. They are nocturnal hunters, and most feed on small mammals, birds, and frogs. Females of all but one species lay eggs. The hood, which serves as a warning device, consists of loose skin around the neck; when the snake is excited it spreads the hood by extending the underlying long, movable ribs, and inflating it with air from the lungs. The king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah), or hamadryad, largest of all venomous snakes, is found in S Asia; it may reach a length of 18 ft (5.5 m) and feeds chiefly on other snakes. The Indian cobra (Naja naja), a common snake of the same region, is usually 4 to 5 ft (1.2–1.6 m) long; its large hood is marked on the back by a pattern of figures resembling eyes. It preys on rats and is therefore often found in houses. The Indian cobra and the Egyptian cobra (Naja haja) are often displayed by snake charmers. The cobras appear to respond to the music played by the charmer, but, like all snakes, they are deaf and only follow the movements of the charmer. As cobras do not strike accurately during the day, charmers are seldom bitten. Most cases of snakebite from cobras occur when humans walking barefoot at night disturb the animal. Cobra venom is not as toxic as that of some other members of the family; the fatality rate among human victims is thought to be about 10%. Some African cobras can eject a spray of venom through the openings of the fangs, aiming accurately to a distance of at least 6 ft (1.8 m). Among these is the ringhals (Hemachatus hemachatus) of S Africa, which aims the spray at the eyes of the victim, causing great pain and sometimes blindness. The ringhals is the only cobra that bears live young. Cobras are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Reptilia, order Squamata, family Elapidae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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