Saturday, February 12, 2005

Cobras Spit Venom at Eyes, Perfect Aim

Note: During a trip to Bangkok, my friends and I visited a snake farm, a favorite tourist attraction in Thailand. The cobras, in particular fascinated me. There were at least 20 in a ring of wire mesh and the proprietor was deliberately provoking them for our viewing pleasure. Although thrilling, it was rather senseless and risky. The king of snakes, the King Cobras are the most magnificent and one of the deadliest snakes in the world.

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News

If you're smart, you'll never come within six feet (two meters) of a spitting cobra. If you're unlucky and by some horrible chance you do, a word of advice: Close your eyes.

Katja Tzschätzsch, a research student at the University of Bonn in Germany, has demonstrated that the red Mozambique spitting cobra and the black-necked spitting cobra deliberately aim for the eyes of whomever or whatever they feel threatened by.

The lab results don't surprise snake experts.

"To my knowledge there hasn't been a lot of work done on whether they actually aim for the eyes. It's mostly been anecdotal evidence," said Bill Altimari, a herpetologist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. "But I'd be surprised if anyone in the field thinks otherwise. My experience has been that the red spitter and the black-neck went right for your eyes. Our keepers at the Philadelphia Zoo [where I used to work] always wore face masks."

Sam Lee, assistant supervisor in the Bronx Zoo's department of herpetology, concurs, again based on personal experience.

"These animals always aim for keepers' goggles," he said.

"Anyone at the zoo working with this type of snake wears a face mask because that's usually where they aim," added Dino Ferri, assistant curator for reptiles and amphibians at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

If everyone knows spitting cobras aim for the eyes, why ask the question?

"It was necessary to actually show this in order to ask the next question: How do cobras identify the eyes in different animals and humans?" said Guido Westhoff, the professor at the University of Bonn who supervised Tzschätzsch's work.

The Experiment

Katja Tzschätzsch used four red Mozambique and six black-necked spitting cobras. In her experiments she either stood face-to-face with them—protected by a plastic visor—or she used photos.

She recorded the spitting process using a high-speed video camera. "The snakes really do spit only at moving faces," was her first finding. "Movements involving the hand elicited no response from any of the snakes."

Only two cobras reacted to photos of faces.

The evaluation of the traces of venom on the photos and the visor revealed how accurate the both species' aim is: The black-necked spitting cobras hit at least one eye eight out of ten times. The Mozambique cobras hit their target every time.

What happens if a cobra's venom lands in your eye? The cocktail of toxins consists of nerve poisons and other components harmful to tissue. The sensitive cornea reacts with severe stinging pain. In the worst case these burns can lead to blindness.

The lesson is clear: If ever you're confronted by a spitting cobra (common in Africa and Asia) stand back at least 10 feet (3 meters) and protect your eyes.

To read the full story, click here, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/02/0210_050210_cobra.html

6 Comments:

Anonymous peegeedee said...

Two of the things that scare me most, (in the wild kingdom, I mean) are snakes, and BIG spiders. Yet, I am fascinated by both of them. If I ever saw one, alive, I would probably die of a HeartAttack, before it could bite me. Thanks for the information on the Cobras.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Donna said...

I'm going to try very hard never to be within 10 miles of these creatures. The article was quite fascinating though.

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