Urban Wildlife Series: Spectacled Cobra (Naja naja)

Very few animals, very few, can even come close to the effect that the spectacled cobra (Naja naja) has on Sri Lankan culture and society. The sheer amount of cultural significance that accompanies this downright impressive creature just warrants a look into them, because that is the only way one can gauge how impressive they sound. If we go through the historical records, they speak of four ancient races of Sri Lanka, namely the “Yaksha, Naaga, Deva, and Raaksha”. Out of these, the Naaga people were known as great seafarers and one of the speculated reasons as to why they are called as Naaga is because they adopted the cobra as their symbol. Other theories slither to the realm of fantasy where it says that they were called as such because they were supernatural beings who had the ability to turn into snakes at will. 

Culturally, cobras have been given the role of guardians of the water for centuries. Generally a rock carving of a cobra with multiple hoods was placed near the reservoir / tank, in the hopes that it would cast a protective charm over the sluice and the dam, two of the most important parts of a reservoir / tank.

Cobra guard stone at the Rajagala ruins. Image taken by Road Less Traveled Sri Lanka.

A very strongly rooted common belief among the locals is that if you don’t hurt a cobra, it won’t hurt you (which is basic common sense). Plus that belief is cemented by the legend that cobras can curse you if you hurt them and a curse by a cobra is as deadly as its venom. Back then, rural people address cobras as “Nai Haami / නයි හාමි or Mr. Cobra” and would kindly ask it to leave their premises rather than resorting to violence, should they ever find one coiled inside their house (a more humane solution which has drastically changed). This is because they believe that sometimes, your loved ones reincarnate as cobras and would visit their relatives in their homes. 

They also forbade the playing of flutes or other wind instruments inside homes, near a jungle or while in an open plain because they believed that cobras, upon hearing these tantalizing tunes would slither towards their source and would strike the player down if he stops playing the flute – this could also be a fabrication of an irate father who couldn’t get proper sleep at home because of his child’s impromptu fluting which, sounds like a cat with hernia coughing up a fur ball at 3 am in the morning. However, contrary to popular belief, cobras are tone deaf so they can’t hear those choking tunes coming from the flute of a snake charmer no matter how hard they try. That “dance” they perform is by mimicking the movement of the flute, which is in their direct line of sight. Plus living so close to the ground makes them adept at picking up vibrations from far away, giving them a “sound” advantage over their deafness.

Snake Charmer with Cobra in basket. Image by Cristian Ungureanu.

Ever heard of the “Naaga Maanikya / නාග මානික්‍යය” or the ”Cobra Gem”? Well, as per legend, it is believed that certain cobras have a brilliant gemstone hidden in their neck and they regurgitate it when they are about to feed, and it is said that the sheer brilliance of the gemstone sets the area alight. They are quite fond of the gem and guard it with their life. If one who’s overcome by greed, wants to recover the Naaga Maanikya, they must follow the correct cobra, wait until it purges the gem and cover it with cow dung. The snake would then be distraught at losing its precious gem and disgusted that it can’t go through the cow dung and so would strike its hood at the ground and pass out with grief (so dark it makes Stephen King pucker). Plus there is the legend of the “Kobō Nayaa” (not to be confused with Kobōneela / කොබෝනීල or Bauhinia purpurea, which is a flowering tree found in Sri Lanka), cobras that are only found in the Himalayas. When they grow old, they lose a segmented body part and when only one body segment is left, they are said to sprout wings from it and fly away into the sunset.

As evident by these interesting and captivating stories, the spectacled cobra truly is a magnificent animal. Locally it is known as Nayaa / නයා or Naagayaa / නාගයා, it’s common English name is actually Portuguese! In Portuguese, “Cobra” means “Snake”. The reason it’s called a “spectacled” cobra is because of the distinct black and white marking which is clearly seen when it’s impressive hood is inflated. This marking looks like a pair of spectacles without the handle parts, also known as a pince-nez in french (“pince” meaning to pinch and “nez” meaning nose as it was tightly pinched on the nose when in use). They are also referred to as binocellate cobras, meaning having two eyespots (“bi” meaning two and “ocellate” meaning marked with spots resembling eyes). 

To us, it looks like the letter “p / ප” of the sinhala alphabet. Also the word “පලයන් / palayan” starts with the letter “ප” which is a very informal way of saying to get away in sinhalese, which you should be doing if you are in the vicinity of a spectacled cobra. So consider it a sort of pre-warning. How considerate are they! 

Different spectacled cobra hoods. Image by Anil Kanaskar.

But, not all hood marks look the same (they aren’t being minted out of a factory, see) and can be used to identify individual spectacled cobras from one another. Some have the perfect “ප”, others have hood marks that look like they were drawn by a blindfolded toddler, and some even have no hood mark at all! But in the end, everything goes on to show how much diversity nature has to offer, if we are to look more closely.  

A cobra will expand its hood only when it feels threatened, in an effort to intimidate the apparent threat and keep all its focus on the source of the threat. Speaking of threats, the Indian grey mongoose (Herpestes edwardsii) is well known to engage in Mortal Kombat with cobras, ending the cobra with a Soul Purging, Spinal Column Rip! – any Mortal Kombat fans in the house? This is nature’s way of keeping the cobra population in check, as they have very few predators. Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus) are also well-known cobra hunters, and so are certain birds of prey such as serpent eagles (Spilornis cheela). Such is the way of nature, everything is cyclic, everything has a role to maintain a delicate balance.

Heading back to the original battle, when they fight, the mongoose bobs and weaves, floats and stings like Muhammad Ali, aiming for the head of the cobra. An interesting thing to observe here is that the cobra keeps nearly one-third of its body upright, and the mongoose knows this well enough, and keeps that exact distance safely away from the cobra, waiting for the right time to pounce. Most fights end with mongoose victory because of their speed, agility, shaggy coat and their specialized immunity to cobra venom. 

There is folklore on mongooses actively seeking out the leaves of the plant spirit weed (Eryngium foetidum) or as it is known in Sinhala, අඳු කොල / andhu kola, as a remedy for snake venom and that cobras despise the scent of the leaves. This gave rise to the Sinhala expression “නයාට අඳු කොල වගේ / like spirit weed leaves to a cobra” which is used at something that will cause an angry or violent reaction (like the terrible mobile signal strength of a certain service provider). There is however, no scientific background to this, yet it is used in traditional medicine for snake venom so it is open for research.

(R) Adult spectacled cobra showing its upright body position; Image by Dushmantha Kulathunga. (L) Andhu kola / spirit weed; Image taken from Wikipedia.

Generally, cobras measure around 1 to 1.5 meters in length but there are records of specimens from Sri Lanka reaching 2.2 meters, although this is a bit uncommon. It is a heavy bodied creature, found in forests, agricultural lands, wetlands, and urban areas, which is a true testament to its ability to adapt to any environment – but keep in mind that they are not found at altitudes of 2,000 meters above sea level. They are primarily terrestrial but should the occasion call for it, can also swim very well. They have a preference for areas with close proximity to water and prefer abandoned termite mounds, rat burrows and tree hollows as ideal hiding places.

Large spectacled cobra photographed via camera trap at the Diyasaru Park.

Spectacled cobras are mostly crepuscular (active during twilight hours) and can sometimes be seen slithering about during the day as well. Like most considerably larger snakes, it has a special penchant for rodents but will add reptiles, amphibians, and the occasional birds to its diet. When it’s done locating its prey, it quickly bites the would-be meal, and once completely immobilized by the cobra venom, it is swallowed whole. 

Cobra venom comprises cardiotoxin (primarily affects heart functions) and a neurotoxin (primarily affects the functions of the nervous system) and therefore, if not treated properly, causes muscle paralysis and cardiac arrest. The main thing to do if you get bitten by a cobra, is not to panic – which is easier said than done – but if you panic, the increase in adrenaline in your body will course the venom through your body faster, thereby speeding up its effects. So, keep calm and rush to the nearest hospital (a new tshirt idea perhaps?). For such a lethal substance, cobra venom does have its medicinal uses, and is used to make painkillers and drugs which go into treating cancer.

Come mating season, spectacled cobras reproduce sexually and lay between 12-20 eggs in a hollow tree or in a secluded hole. Unlike many other snake species, once the eggs are laid, the female remains coiled around her clutch, guarding them until they hatch, which would take approximately 48-69 days. During this time, she only leaves her post to feed. Once hatched, a hatchling snake (also known as a snakelet – yes, you may die from cuteness overload) is perfectly capable of rearing its hood and striking any potential threat, and it is possessed with a fully functional venom gland even from birth. Snakelets are independent from birth and won’t need its mother after hatching.

(R) Spectacled cobras feeling romantic; Image by Niraj Pathak. (L) A newly hatched snakelet; Image by Chandrima Bose.

Despite their legendary status and fearsome reputation, they provide us with more good than harm. They take care of the vermin problem which plagues us, which is created most of the time by our own doing especially when we dump garbage irresponsibly, creating a boom in the rat/mouse population. If you want to see what kind of destruction, hordes upon hordes of rodents can do, see what’s happening in Australia at the moment. When there are no natural predators, no threats for the survival of a certain species, their populations increase rapidly, which spells doom for the ecosystem. This is why predators like snakes are important in an ecosystem. If you encounter one at your home, make sure all entry points to the house are remedied and wait till it leaves. Don’t go dousing it with kerosene or beating it with sticks like a piñata. The saddest thing is that even harmless, snakes like oriental rat snakes (Ptyas mucosa) are killed on sight because people mistake them for cobras. This is why articles like these exist, to raise awareness and to teach people how to coexist with these amazing animals. They have a right to live as well as you do, and they do their part towards upholding the balance of nature and it is high time that we do so as well.

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