A cobra is a venomous snake, most of which belong to the Elapidae family of snakes, which is capable of spreading its neck ribs to form a flattened hood when startled. They are indigenous to southern Africa, southern Asia, and some islands of Southeast Asia, as well as some parts of the United States and Cuba.
Cobra derives from a Portuguese word for snake (from Latin original coluber) (the other is serpente) without distinction as to type. In English and in some other languages, it has been adopted as a more specific name for poisonous snakes that can produce a hood (though one of these, the "American cobra", produces no such hood).
Not all snakes commonly referred to as cobras are of the same genus, or even in the family Elapidae. The name "cobra" is short for cobra de capelo which is Portuguese for "snake with hood". In some modern languages, such as Afrikaans, the other part of the Portuguese name was adopted, and the predominant name for a cobra in Afrikaans is kapel.
When used in reference to snakes, "cobra" may refer to:
- Any member of the genus Naja, also known as typical or "true" cobras, a group of elapids found in Africa and Asia. They include over 20 species, among them Naja nivea, the Cape cobra, a moderately sized, highly venomous cobra from southern Africa; Cleopatra's "asp" (the Egyptian cobra, Naja haje); the Asiatic spectacled cobra Naja naja and monocled cobra, Naja kaouthia, the spitting cobras which are able to squirt venom in self-defense, and the burrowing cobra, Naja multifasciata, considered a separate genus (Paranaja) until recent molecular studies classified it as belonging to the rest of the true cobras
- The ring-necked spitting cobra or rinkhals (Hemachatus haemachatus) a species of elapid found in Africa closely related to the genus Naja
- Either of the two members of the genus Boulengerina, the water cobras, a pair of elapids found in Africa (now regarded by some experts as actually belonging to the genus Naja)
- Either member of the genus Aspidelaps, the shield cobras, an African genus in the Elapidae whose hoods are not nearly as well developed as those of Naja
- Either of two species of the genus Pseudohaje, the tree cobras, a pair of African elapids which until recently were classified as belonging to Naja but are now considered a separate group
- Ophiophagus hannah, the king cobra, an elapid found in parts of India and southern Asia which, despite its name and reputation, is not classified among the "true" cobras
- Micrurus fulvius, the American cobra or eastern coral snake, a species of the Elapidae found in the southeastern United States and in parts of Cuba; this is one of the few types of cobra which is not capable of producing a hood
- Hydrodynastes gigas, the "false water cobra", the only species of the family Colubridae, a mildly venomous snake indigenous to parts of South America; though unrelated to the elapids, it still forms a hood if disturbed, though the hood is longer and narrower than those of "true" cobras and it does not rear upwards
Although the bites of some species are extremely dangerous because of their potent neurotoxins, cobras have not been shown to attack people unprovoked. Cobras almost never attack without a threat display, which typically involves raising the hood and hissing.
Various species of cobras prey mainly on other snakes, birds, and small mammals, while their main natural predators in turn are other snakes, birds of prey, and small predatory mammals such as mongooses. The principal prey of the king cobra is other snakes.
Although most cobras do not make nests, some species protect their eggs until they hatch (incubation typically taking around 60 days).
- Oxford. 1991. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition. Clarendon Press, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-861258-3.
- Boshoff, S. P. E.; Nienaber, G. S. (1967). AfrikaanseEtimologieë. Pretoria: Die Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns.
- Bosman, D. B.; Van der Merwe I. W. & Hiemstra, L. W. (1984). Tweetalige Woordeboek Afrikaans-Engels. Tafelberg-uitgewers. ISBN 0-624-00533-X.
- Broadley, Donald G.; Andrew S. Baldwin (2006). "Taxonomy, natural history and zoogeography of the Southern African shield cobras, genus Aspidelaps (Serpentes: Elapidae)" (PDF). Herpetological Natural History. 9.
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