Snakes — King Cobra, Banded Sea Krait, Reticulated Python, Spider-Tailed Viper, Wonambi Serpent, Diamondback Rattlesnake, Titanoboa, Etc
January 30, 2015 in Animals & Insects
Snakes are awesome. This article is going to go over some of the most interesting details of some of the most interesting snake species out there. Enjoy.
The King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is a species of venomous snake in the Elapidae family — which means that they possess the characteristic hollow, fixed fangs of the family. The species is found primarily in the forests of India, and other portions of Southeast Asia.
It’s the longest species of venomous snake in the world — growing to lengths of up to 19 feet long — and preys mostly on other snakes. Despite the name “King Cobra”, the species actually isn’t a member of the Naja genus (“true cobras”) — but is instead the sole surviving member of the genus Ophiophagus.
While King Cobras mostly just hunt other snakes, they do occasionally prey upon small mammals and lizards. Despite the relatively small size of their prey, they are a formidable opponent for any animal — despite their competence though, they generally are quite placid in the wild, and simply avoid other large animals, such as people, most of the time.
When cornered, though, they are highly aggressive and persistent.
When threatened the species likes to rear up on the lower one-third or so of its body — raising itsself well up to or above the eye level of a grown man. They also generally show their fangs and hiss loudly. And will intentionally spit venom into the eyes of their opponents — which, when done to humans, often results in permanent blindness.
When in confrontation with King Cobras people often greatly misjudge what constitutes a “safe distance” — as the snakes can move forward great distances very rapidly owing to their great length and speed. When striking they often deliver multiple bites in a single attack, but are also known to simply bite and hold on while injecting loads of venom — this behavior is more common amongst the adults.
Despite all of this, wild King Cobras are actually quite docile. The vast majority of bites to humans don’t occur as a result of the wild ones — which generally do everything they can to avoid people — but as a result of “snake charmers” running out of good fortune.
While they can grow to lengths of up to ~19 feet — as stated previously — most individuals max out somewhere around 10-13 feet long, and 13 lbs in weight. The longest known scientifically documented individual was kept captive at the London Zoo for a number of years, and was measured as being about 18.5 to 18.8 feet long. That individual may have ended up larger, though, as it didn’t die naturally, but was instead euthanized upon the outbreak of World War II for monetary reasons. The heaviest wild specimen on record was an individual caught at Royal Island Club in Singapore back in 1951. The males of the species grow to be notably larger than the females.
King Cobras, like most other snakes, rely to a notable degree on chemical information received via its forked tongue and processed by a specialized organ located in the roof of its mouth (Jacobson’s organ) to locate prey. The fork in the tongue allows for the snake to interpret the chemical information in a stereo format — as we do with our eyes and ears.
The species also possesses very keen eyesight — with the ability to spot moving prey from as much as 330-feet away; high intelligence; and great sensitivity to vibrations transmitted through the ground. All of the abilities are used by King Cobras while hunting.
Despite the general reliance on venom, King Cobras are actually known to simply employ constriction against many smaller/easier prey animals — such as rodents, birds, etc.
Once they’ve fed, King Cobras can go for many months without food — owing to their rather slow metabolic rates.
As noted before, despite their reputation wild King Cobras are actually rather calm, placid snakes. The naturalist Michael Wilmer Forbes Tweedie commented on the disparity between the public perception and the reality thusly: “This notion is based on the general tendency to dramatise all attributes of snakes with little regard for the truth about them. A moment’s reflection shows that this must be so, for the species is not uncommon, even in populated areas, and consciously or unconsciously, people must encounter king cobras quite frequently. If the snake were really habitually aggressive records of its bite would be frequent; as it is they are extremely rare.”
In the folklore of the Indian Subcontinent, King Cobras are considered to possess very strong memories. The stories state that the picture of a king cobra’s killer can stay in the dead snake’s eyes and later be to transmitted to the dead snake’s mate, which will often then hunt down the killer.
While King Cobras aren’t currently classified as being “endangered”, their current population numbers are only a small fraction of what they once were – with huge drops in population numbers seen in recent years owing to large-scale deforestation in the region, and a growing international “pet trade” in the species.
Banded Sea Krait
The banded sea krait (Laticauda colubrina) is a species of sea snake common throughout the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific ocean. While the species spends much of its time in the ocean, it doesn’t live there entirely — often resting and nesting on beaches and rocky headlands.
Interestingly, the males generally come ashore earlier than the females, sometimes in the early evening, and then wait at the high tide line for the females to arrive. Considering that the females of the species are much larger than the males, the behavior is interesting, but the exact reasons for it aren’t currently known.
Banded sea kraits are often observed hunting cooperatively with hunting parties of giant trevally (Caranx ignobilis) and goatfish. The approach is similar to that taken by moray eels when they are observed hunting cooperatively with other species — the banded sea kraits flush the prey out of various crevices, holes, etc, that the larger fish can’t get into, the goatfish and trevally then kill the escaping fish, and the partner species then share the now-dead prey.
Kraits are unable to subsist on seawater and must occasionally come ashore to drink freshwater, and to flush accumulated salts out.
Worth noting is that the species is able to trick predators into thinking that it’s tail is actually its head — a useful ability when probing crevices, and left unprotected. This is accomplished through the innate coloration of the species tail,but also through movements designed to aid in the illusion.
Banded sea kraits are a relatively common species throughout the eastern Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. While the general range is from the eastern coast of India, to the coasts of souther China, up to the southern islands of Japan — in that general latitude — traveling individuals are often found as far afield as the eastern coast of Australia and New Zealand.
The spider-tailed viper (urarachnoides) is a species of viper endemic to the deserts of western Iran. As its name implies, it’s a viper with what looks like spider on its tail — the “spider” is used as a lure (from behind cover) to draw in the snake’s prey.
Other than when out hunting at night, the snakes spend most of their time resting in burrows, rock crevices, etc. The species isn’t venomous (not particularly anyways), and kills via constriction. Their diets consists mostly of frogs, snakes, and small mammals.
The Wonambi was a genus of very large snakes that lived in Australia until the megafauna extinctions that occurred after the arrival of people on the island — some 50,000 or so years ago.
There were two species in the genus (as currently known), both of which were in the, now extinct, family Madtsoiidae. The two species are/were Wonambi naracoortensis and Wonambi barriei.
Wonambi naracoortensis grew to be at least 16-20 feet long, and was likely to have been an ambush predator that killed by constriction — similar to most large snakes still extant today, such as reticulated pythons and boas.
The species was first described based on fossils found in Naracoorte, South Australia. The species (and genus) was given the name Wonambi in reference to the stories of some aboriginal groups in Australia. In the stories of some tribes, a serpent being of Dreamtime, often known as the Rainbow Serpent was/is/will be responsible for the creation of some of the major features of the landscape of various regions.
It’s worth noting here that these stories of Dreamtime are “Everywhen” — that is to say they are simultaneously past, present, and future. Maybe something a bit similar to the modern western concept of there being fundamental “principles” behind the processes of various things.
Until it’s extinction the species and genus was something of a “living fossil”, as it had gone extinct in most other parts of the world around 55 million years ago.
It’s thought (and corroborated by aboriginal stories) that the species generally lived near waterside sun-traps, where it would ambush its prey — kangaroos, wallabys, etc. Owing to this behavior, children were forbidden from playing around waterholes on their own, and were expected to only venture to such places when in the company of adults.
The Reticulated Python (Python reticulatus) is the longest species of snake in the world, with large individuals often reaching lengths of well over 20 feet — and, also, well over 100 lbs. The species is native to Southeast Asia, but is now invasive in many other parts of the world, including the Florida Everglades.
The largest individual of the species to ever be scientifically verified was a captive individual kept in Kansas City, apparently — that individual measured right around 25.2 feet in length, and weighed 350 lbs.
The species is more-or-less nonvenomous, and kills through constriction. While they generally aren’t considered to be a threat to humans, they are known to occasionally kill people.
Interestingly, Reticulated Pythons are actually excellent swimmers, and have often been observed far out at sea, far from any shoreline. Which explains why the species has colonized the vast majority of the small islands found throughout its home-range.
While the species skin patterns may seem quite ‘brazen’ when seen in a typical zoo-like setting, when in its natural shadow-heavy, jungle habitat, Reticulated Pythons can actually be quite hard to spot — blending in very well with that shadowy, organic debris-filled environment.
Among the many stories involving Reticulated Pythons eating people, I’ve highlighted 2 of them below, that are particularly interesting:
- Franz Werner reported a case from Burma occurring either in the early 1910s or in 1927. A jeweller named Maung Chit Chine, who went hunting with his friends, was apparently eaten by a 19.7-foot specimen after he sought shelter from a rainstorm in or under a tree. Supposedly, he was swallowed feet-first, contrary to normal snake behavior, but perhaps the easiest way for a snake to actually swallow a human.
- On September 4, 1995, Ee Heng Chuan, a 29-year-old rubber tapper from the southern Malaysian state of Johor, was killed by a large reticulated python. The victim had apparently been caught unaware and was squeezed to death. The snake had coiled around the lifeless body with the victim’s head gripped in its jaws when it was stumbled upon by the victim’s brother. The python, measuring 23-foot long and weighing more than 300 lb, was killed soon after by the arriving police, who required four shots to bring it down.
Titanoboa (T. cerrejonensis) is/was the largest species of snake known to have ever existed — the largest individuals are estimated to have reached lengths of over 42 feet, and weights of over 2500 lbs.
To date, the fossils of 28 different individuals of the extinct species have been found in the coal mines of Cerrejón in La Guajira, Colombia. Before this discovery, interestingly, there had been very few fossils found in the deposits pertaining to the ancient tropical environments of South America.
Because snakes are ectothermic, the discovery implies that the tropics, the creature’s habitat, must have been warmer than previously thought, averaging approximately 30 °C (90 °F). The warmer climate of the Earth during the time of T. cerrejonensis allowed cold-blooded snakes to attain much larger sizes than modern snakes. Today, larger ectothermic animals are found in the tropics, where it is hottest, and smaller ones are found farther from the equator.
However, several researchers disagreed with the above estimate. For example, a 2009 study in the journal Nature applying the mathematical model used in the above study to an ancient lizard fossil from temperate Australia predicts that lizards currently living in tropical areas should be capable of reaching 33 feet, which is obviously not the case.
In another critique published in the same journal, Mark Denny, a specialist in biomechanics, noted that the snake was so large and was producing so much metabolic heat that the ambient temperature must have been four to six degrees cooler than the current estimate, or the snake would have overheated. (Author’s note: Or the species had some other means of cooling down.)
There are of course other possibilities as well, not mentioned by the researchers — the most important of which is that the species had a different internal physiology than modern snake species. Something that’s certainly not an impossibility.
When dealing with animals that lived that long ago it’s probably best not to make too many assumptions — the planet was a very different place back then, and the animals alive back then could very well have featured “adaptions” to the circumstances of the time that haven’t survived to the present age.
The Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) is a species of venomous pit viper native to the southeastern United States. The species represents the heaviest — but not the longest — venomous snake native to the Americas, and also the largest known species of rattlesnake.
You may recognize the snake’s visage from the original/first flag of the USA — the Gadsden Flag, used during the American Revolution.
The Diamondback Rattlesnake is, as mentioned before, the largest rattlesnake species in the world. The heaviest individual ever measured scientifically was 7.8-feet long, and weighed 34 lbs — this individual was shot back in 1946. In recent times, 7.3-foot individual was caught and killed in St Augustine, Florida, in 2009.
The species often shelters in confiscated gopher and tortoise burrows — generally leaving in the early morning and afternoon hours to sun-bask. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the species is actually very good at swimming. Individuals have even been observed crossing large bodies of water (miles from land), such as: the open water between the various islands of the Florida Keys; and the open water between barrier islands and the mainland, off the coast of Georgia.
Despite the myth, diamondback rattlesnakes don’t always “rattle” before striking. They are completely capable of striking while being completely silent — the rattle is just a “warning” of sorts.
Individuals in the wild had previously been observed to often live to be more than 20 years old, but in recent years the average age of death has been falling rapidly due to the expansion of human-settlements and increased levels of hunting.
Individual disposition varies, with some allowing close approach while remaining silent, and others starting to rattle at a distance of 20–30 feet. The rattle is well developed and can be heard from relatively far away. When threatened, they raise the anterior half of their bodies off the ground in an S-shaped coil, and can strike to a distance of at least a third of their body length. Many will stand their ground and may strike repeatedly, but if given the opportunity, they will usually retreat while facing the intruder and moving backwards towards shelter, after which they disappear.
With regards to the venom of the species, the mortality rate for humans bitten by diamondbacks is somewhere around 10-30% (different studies have had different results).
The bite feels, apparently, “like two hot hypodermic needles” and is often accompanied by “spontaneous bleeding from the bite site, intense internal pain, bleeding from the mouth, hypotension, a weak pulse, swelling and discoloration of the affected limb, and associated severe pain”.
The species (C. adamanteus) is currently protected under state-law in North Carolina, owing to its endangered status there. It’s also presumed extinct in the state of Louisiana, where it hasn’t been seen since 1995.
While the Diamondback Rattlesnake isn’t currently listed as being endangered, it is under review for said listing. As it stands, the current population numbers are ~3% what they were just 100 years ago.
Green Tree Python
The Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis, genus Chondropython) is a species of snake native to the forests of New Guinea, Indonesia, and very limited portions of Australia. The species regularly reaches sizes of 5-6 feet long, but can get notably larger.
They are primarily arboreal, and have a very distinctive way of resting on tree branches — which doesn’t much resemble that of any other species of snake.
The flying snakes (Chrysopelea) are a genus of snake belonging to the family Colubridae. While they are venomous, that venom is not particularly dangerous for humans, and doesn’t usually cause any real issues when envenomation does occur.
Flying snakes are found all throughout Southeast Asia — Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, southern China, India, Sri Lanka, etc. As the names implies, these snakes “fly” — which is to say, they can glide rather long distances when flinging themselves from off the top of treetops.
It climbs using ridge scales along its belly, pushing against rough bark surface of tree trunks, allowing it to move vertically up a tree. Upon reaching the end of a tree’s branch, the snake continues moving until its tail dangles from the branch’s end. It then makes a J-shape bend, leans forward to select the level of inclination it wishes to use to control its flight path, as well as selecting a desired landing area. Once it decides on a destination, it propels itself by thrusting its body up and away from the tree, sucking in its abdomen and flaring out its ribs to turn its body into a “pseudo concave wing”, all the while making a continual serpentine motion of lateral undulation parallel to the ground to stabilise its direction in midair in order to land safely.
Hairy Bush Viper
The Hairy Bush Viper (Atheris hispida) is a species of venomous viper snake native to Central Africa. The species is highly recognizable owing to its “sharp” dorsal scales — giving a very distinct appearance.
The species is mostly nocturnal is also often observed sunbathing during the daylight hours on the tops of bushy plants and flowers.
The Sunbeam Snakes (Xenopeltidae) are a family of snakes in the genus Xenopeltis that are notable for their highly iridescent skin, which gives off a rainbow effect when light is cast on it. The family is native to Southeast Asia. There are currently two species in the family.
Genetic research has suggested that the family is most closely related to the pythons — and in particular to the Mexican Burrowing Python (Loxocemus).
Sunbeam snakes spend the majority of their time hidden, only coming out at nightfall to hunt frogs, rodents, and other snakes. They are not venomous, and instead kill via constriction — as their closest relatives the pythons do.
Image Credit: Public Domain; Wiki CC