Spitting Cobra

Last updated: April 2, 2023
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© RealityImages/Shutterstock.com

Spitting cobras are types of cobras that can spit venom at predators and prey.


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Spitting Cobra Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Reptilia
Order
Squamata
Family
Elapidae

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Spitting Cobra Conservation Status

Spitting Cobra Locations

Spitting Cobra Locations

Spitting Cobra Facts

Prey
Small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects, eggs, birds. Some species scavenge.
Group Behavior
  • Solitary
Fun Fact
Spitting cobras are types of cobras that can spit venom at predators and prey.
Diet
Carnivore
Average Litter Size
2 to 23 eggs
Common Name
Spitting cobra, ulupong
Location
Africa and Asia

Spitting Cobra Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Yellow
  • Red
  • Blue
  • Black
  • Green
  • Pink
Skin Type
Scales
Lifespan
20 year lifespan in captivity
Length
2.29 to 8.9 feet
Age of Sexual Maturity
two or three years

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“The Spitting Cobra Evolved to Deter Humans”

When a spitting cobra spits it aims for the eyes and frequently hits the target. It makes you wonder how a snake knows where and what a human’s eyes are. Some biologists believe that the ability to accurately aim at the eyes evolved in cobras, who are much older than Homo sapiens, when humans first came on the scene and started harassing them. In other words, the reptile may not know where your eyes are and how much you value your sight, but nature does. Read on to learn more about these fascinating animals.

Amazing Facts

Mozambique spitting cobra - Close Up On Venom

Spitting cobras are some of the deadliest reptiles on the planet.

©Eugene Troskie/Shutterstock.com

Here are five amazing facts about spitting cobras.

  • Some spitting cobras can spit venom as far as 10 feet.
  • Ashe’s spitting cobra is the largest spitting cobra and can grow over 8 feet in length.
  • Their venom might cause some blistering if it lands on your skin but can blind you if it lands in your eyes.
  • The Indochinese spitting cobra has the smallest spitting range of the other spitters at around 3.3 feet. It also sprays a mist as opposed to a stream.
  • Identification of a spitting cobra can be done by examining the fangs. The opening in the fang of the spitting cobra is aimed toward the front of the mouth and is much smaller than the opening in the fang of a non-spitting cobra.

Where To Find Spitting Cobras

Javan Spitting Cobra

Spitting cobras have adapted to survive in a variety of environments.



©hermawanandik/Shutterstock.com

These venomous reptiles are found in Africa and Asia. Habitats range from the savannas, deserts, and tropical forests of Africa to the mangroves, swamps, and rice paddies of Asia. Habitats also include pastures, jungles, places where people live and work, and locations as high as 6600 feet.

Evolution

A zebra spitting cobra in water with its head raised

Spitting cobras may have evolved their venom-shooting ability as a defense against early human relatives.

©iStock.com/Shumba138

Spitting cobras are unique amongst venomous snakes by virtue of the fact that they use their venom primarily for defense, not predation. Scientists believe that this unusual trait may have arisen as a defense against some of humanity’s early ancestors, such as homo erectus. This theory comes from the fact that spitting cobras first developed their namesake trait at about the same time that hominids first began to evolve from ancient apes around 2 to 7 million years ago. Fossils of cobras have also been found in archaeological sites containing early human ancestors as well. Early hominids who had begun to use tools such as spears would require long-distance defenses in order to preemptively stop a projectile attack. This evidence is highly circumstantial, but it is the only theory science has to date as to why these snakes may have begun to spit.

Scientific Name

Banded rinkhals

Rinkhals are the only spitting cobras that do not belong to the genus

Naja

.

©Andre Coetzer/Shutterstock.com

Most spitting cobras belong to the Naja genus. The one exception is the rinkhals, which is the only member of the Hemachatus genus. It is different from the other spitting cobras in that its scales are somewhat keeled and ridged. Naja is derived from Naga, a Sanskrit word that simply means “snake.” Hemachatus comes from the Greek words haima, which means “blood” and achatēs, which means “agate,” so the name means blood-colored agate. Interestingly, the rinkhals is not considered a “true” cobra, though it is grouped with the spitting cobras.

The Different Types of Spitting Cobra

Mozambique spitting cobra is so named because it projects venom from its fangs into its attacker's eyes, which can cause vision problems or blindness.

Mozambique spitting cobra is so named because it projects venom from its fangs into its attacker’s eyes, which can cause vision problems or blindness.

©Cormac Price/Shutterstock.com

There are about 18 species of spitting cobra. Some of them greatly resemble each other and identification can only be made through close inspection of the snake. For example, the Chinese and monocled cobras look very much alike but have different numbers of scales in their abdomens and beneath their tails.

Spitting cobras, with the exception of the rinkhals, are also considered true cobras though scientists aren’t quite sure what “true cobra” means. Many biologists claim that a true cobra can only belong to the Naja genus. These snakes can expand and flatten their ribs and their head to create a hood and rear up in a defensive posture. They spit by using muscles to squeeze their venom glands and force the venom out through small holes in their fangs.

Below you can find a list of all 18 species of spitting cobra:

RinkhalsHemachatus haemachatus
Ashe’s Spitting CobraNaja ashei
Mali CobraNaja katiensis
Mozambique Spitting CobraNaja mossambica
Zebra Spitting CobraNaja nigricincta
Black Spitting CobraNaja nigricincta woodi
Black-necked Spitting CobraNaja nigricollis
Nubian Spitting CobraNaja nubiae
Red Spitting CobraNaja pallida
Mandalay Spitting CobraNaja mandalayensis
Philippine CobraNaja philippinensis
Samar CobraNaja samarensis
Indochinese Spitting CobraNaja siamensis
Javan Spitting CobraNaja sputatrix
Equatorial Spitting CobraNaja sumatrana
Chinese CobraNaja atra
Andaman CobraNaja sagittifera
Monocled CobraNaja kaouthia

Population & Conservation Status 

Chinese cobra on white isolated background

Chinese cobras are one of the most threatened species of spitting cobras.

©PetlinDmitry/Shutterstock.com

Though biologists don’t have the exact number of spitting cobras in the world, the conservation status of most is least concern. Exceptions are the Indonesian cobra and the Chinese cobra, whose status is vulnerable.

Appearance and Description 

Black rinkhals, spitting cobra, side view. Some of these snakes may have a mostly black body, while others are striped.

It is difficult to distinguish many spitting cobras from their counterparts without examining their fangs or witnessing their spit.

©Andre Coetzer/Shutterstock.com

Identification of a spitting cobra can be challenging, for they look like any other type of cobra, and some even crossbreed with other cobras who live in their area. Unless a person is a herpetologist who specializes in cobra species, the one way a person can know they have a spitter is if the snake actually spits. Some biologists believe that all members of Naja have at least the ability to spit.

Besides examination of the fangs, the venom of a spitter is more cytotoxic than the venom of other cobras. Cytotoxic means that the venom destroys cells, which is why skin sometimes blisters if a cobra spits on it. Scientists believe that the ability to spit evolved three times over the course of the cobra’s evolution. The venom that’s spat out rarely kills but causes enough damage to make would-be predators avoid the snake in the future.

Besides the ability to create a hood, most of these snakes have slender bodies, though N. ashei is a bit more robust. They are not the biggest snakes in size, and it is rare to find one over 10 feet. Their colors range from red to brown to gray to glossy indigo black, and they may have bands, monocles at the back of their hood, spots, or mottling. Besides spitting, all of them can still bite, and their bite can be fatal.

Spitting Cobra vs King Cobra

King cobra

King cobras do not spit venom, nor are they considered to be true cobras.

©Eric Isselee/Shutterstock.com

Interestingly, the king cobra is not considered a “true cobra.” It is the only member of the Ophiophagus genus and gets its common name because it is much larger in size than other cobras and indeed preys upon them. The king cobra is found only in south and southeast Asia, can grow as long as 19 feet, and has what some describe as a growl as opposed to a hiss. A grown individual is not particularly aggressive and would rather avoid a fight. Yet it has been known to leap off the ground at an attacker, bite and hang on while pumping lots of venom into the wound.

Another thing that separates the king cobra from spitting cobras is that it makes a nest of dead leaves where it lays and incubates its eggs. No other snake does this. Unlike most spitting cobras, the king cobra is considered vulnerable because of habitat loss.

Spitting Cobra Venom: How Dangerous Are They?

Mozambique Spitting Cobra has a slate-grey, blue, olive or tawny brown-black upper body, while its scales have black edges.

The venom from most spitting cobras is incredibly dangerous.

©NickEvansKZN/Shutterstock.com

Some of the most venomous members of the entire Naja genus are the Philippines, Indochinese, Samar, and Chinese spitting cobras. Like other cobras, the venom of spitters evolved to attack the nerves and cardiac cells, but it is good at disrupting cells in general. Because of this, the venom that enters the eyes can cause blindness if the eyes aren’t quickly treated.

If the cobra bites and envenomates its victim, it’s important that they get medical help as soon as possible. Venom can paralyze the person as it attacks the nerve cells, prevents blood from coagulating, and causes necrosis. This can all lead to death. It also needs to be said that baby cobras are venomous from birth.

Behavior and Interaction with Humans

The Spectacled cobra is one the big four venomous species that inflict the most snakebites on humans in India. Many specimens exhibit a hood mark with two circular patterns connected by a curved line, evoking the image of spectacles.

Many species of spitting cobra display complex mating rituals.

©RealityImages/Shutterstock.com

Spitting cobras are solitary animals. Many are nocturnal or crepuscular and are less aggressive if they are caught out during the day. Other cobras such as the Chinese cobra are active day and night. Many cobras choose to live in locations near water and can be said to be semi-aquatic, like N. kaouthia. The diet of juveniles is often frogs or toads, while adults have small mammals, fish, and even other snakes as prey. When they’re not hunting they hide in burrows or tree holes.

Cobras are often apex predators where they live, but some, like the Javan spitting cobra, are sometimes victims of even more robust predators such as the Komodo dragon. Mongooses and pigs also steal their eggs.

The snakes are ready to mate when they’re about two or three years old. The pair engages in a courtship ritual that involves swaying and dancing before they mate, which is often during the rainy season in the locations where they live. The females can lay anywhere from two to 23 eggs after being gravid for about three months. The eggs hatch after 48 to 120 days. Depending on the species, the female may or may not guard the eggs. The lifespan of one of these cobras is about 20 years.

These snakes are helpful to humans because they eat pests that might eat or damage crops, but their ability to both inject and spurt dangerous venom demands that they are treated with respect.

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About the Author

My name is Corinna! In my profile photo you can see me with one of my two cats, Bisky! The other's name is Yma and she's a beautiful black Bombay kitty. I'm 24 years old and I live in Birmingham, AL with my partner Anastasia and like to spend my free time making music, collecting records and reading. Some other animals I've owned were a hamster, 2 chihuahuas and many different kinds of fish.

Spitting Cobra FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Why do spitting cobras spit venom?

Scientific research now believes that spitting cobras may have evolved to spit venom at eyes in response to the rise of humans! While venom that’s spit isn’t fatal, it’s particularly effective against humans. Spitting cobras spit venom as a defensive measure, but they still must bite and release venom when hunting for prey.

Are spitting cobras venomous?

Spitting cobras are extremely venomous.

How do spitting cobras hunt?

They hunt by picking up chemical signals of their prey. They do this by flicking their tongue, then transferring the molecules into a vomeronasal organ that then sends the information to the snake’s brain. They also hunt by sight, and though they are nearly deaf they pick up vibrations through their jaw.

Are spitting cobras aggressive?

Some species can be aggressive, especially when they’re babies. Since babies can also deliver venom it is best to be careful around them.

Where do spitting cobras live?

These snakes live in Africa and Asia.

What do spitting cobras eat?

Their diet is mostly small mammals, amphibians, eggs, insects, other reptiles, and birds, basically anything of a size they can subdue and swallow. Some spitting cobras even eat carrion.

What is a spitting cobra?

It is an elapsid snake with the ability to force venom some distance out of its fangs as a deterrent. Nearly all belong to the Naja genus.

What are some ways for the Mozambique spitting cobra to survive?

Besides spitting and striking, N. mossambica will enter the water, swim away from danger, and even play dead.

How far can a spitting cobra spit?

Some cobras can spit as far as 10 feet.

How does a spitting cobra use its spit to protect itself?

The cobra protects itself by spitting its venom into the eyes of a would-be attacker, causing intense pain and potentially blinding them.

How long is a spitting cobra?

They range in length from 2.29 to 8.9 feet.

What happens if a snake spits on you?

If the snake spits on you, you need to wash the venom off your skin right away. If the venom enters your eyes you must flush all of it out at once to avoid permanent blindness.

Are there any spitting cobras in the United States?

Venomous spitting cobras do not live in the US in the wild, however, a spitting cobra was caught on the loose by officials in Raleigh, North Carolina in 2021. The snake was a pet that had escaped.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources

  1. Britannica / Accessed January 24, 2022
  2. Wikipedia / Accessed January 24, 2022
  3. ITIS / Accessed January 24, 2022
  4. ITIS / Accessed January 24, 2022
  5. National Geographic / Accessed January 24, 2022
  6. Live Science / Accessed January 24, 2022
  7. Discover / Accessed January 24, 2022

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