Most cobras are quite capable of defending themselves. Many would-be predators steer clear of these snakes because of their deadly venom. Some cobras are even better protected, having developed the ability to spit their venom accurately up to 6 feet away via rifled holes in the front of their fangs. Typically, spitting cobras aim for their adversary’s eyes; if their aim is true, immediate pain, swelling and blindness may ensue, which usually deters the predator.
A few different groups of spitting cobras exist and are found in different habitats and hunted by different predators. A Southeast Asian lineage, primarily inhabiting forests, is represented by monocled (Naja kouthia) and equatorial cobras (N. sputatrix) among others. Africa is home to two spitting cobra clades. The "true" spitting cobras are represented by species like the Mozambique (N. mossambica), black (N. nigricollis) and red spitting cobras (N. pallida); all of which inhabit open areas south of the Sahara. (Reference 6) One other clade, more distantly related to the "true cobras," is the Rinkhals (Hemachatus haemachatus). The Rinkhals is the only representative of its genus and lives in the grasslands of South Africa. Mongooses (Herpestes sp.) are important predators of Asian cobras; whereas secretary birds (Sagittarius serpentarius) and monitor lizards (Varanus sp.) are predators of African cobras. In all areas where they occur, hatchling and juvenile spitting cobras are more vulnerable to predators because of their relatively small size, fangs and spitting range.
Monitor lizards, especially white-throated monitors (Varanus albigularis) are important predators of snakes in general; accounts of them eating venomous snakes -- including cobras -- abound. While many claim that monitor lizards are immune to snake venom, noted varanid authority Daniel Bennet, in "A Little Book of Monitor Lizards,"states that this is still not clear how monitor lizards cope with snake venom. It is possible that the monitor’s skin is impenetrable to the cobra’s fangs. Monitor lizards do not present a very good target for cobras to spit at; often monitors will close their eyes while eating to protect themselves from thrashing prey.
Despite the fact that most species consume insects, fruit and egg, mongooses are famous for predating upon snakes. As they are not immune to snake venom, mongooses rely on their quickness, cunning and agility to capture snakes. Mongooses have been observed erecting the hair on their backs when battling with snakes, and it is possible that this confuses the snake or offers better protection from their fangs. Mongooses -- like many predators of snakes -- will attempt to bite a cobra right behind the head, enabling a killing bite while remaining out of reach of the deadly fangs.
Secretary birds are tall, stilt-legged birds of the African plains. Though they don't specifically seek out snakes, secretary birds will eagerly consume snakes -- even venomous species like cobras -- when they are available. When they eat venomous snakes, secretary birds use their long legs to avoid snake strikes. Secretary birds derive some protection from their scaly legs and dense feathers; both of which may keep a snake’s fangs from penetrating the skin. Spitting may be helpful for the cobras, though the bird’s relatively small head gives the cobra a very small target to shoot for.
A number of other animals may opportunistically prey on spitting cobras. Crocodiles and large fish consume anything in their reach that looks small enough to swallow; hawks and eagles are known to consume cobras when the opportunity presents itself; and humans have been eating snakes for millennia, venomous or not. Large cobras are especially poetic predators of spitting cobras. African spitting cobras must watch out for the Mozambique spitting cobra, which eats other snakes; and spitting cobras of Southeast Asia are at risk of being consumed by the biggest cobra in the world: the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah).
- Mampam.com: A Little Book of Monitor Lizards
- Animal Diversity Web: Herpestes ichneumon
- Animal Diversity Web: Sagittarius serpentarius
- San Diego Zoo: Cobras
- Biodiversity Explorer: Naja Mossambica
- Zootaxa: In Praise of Subgenera: Taxonomic Status of Cobras of the Genus Naja
- Venomousreptiles.org: The Rinkhals Spitting Cobra
- Cape Snake Conservation: The Ultimate Cobra Snakes Facts Guide
- Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images