The king cobra is probably a “royal family” of four species

Herpetologists have long wondered how the king cobra, which weaves through the vast Asian landscapes, got separated by seemingly inscrutable divisions such as the Himalayas might be a single species. It also intrigued them that the world’s longest venomous snake, which can grow up to 18 feet, often looks or behaves differently depending on where it lives.

Now it all makes sense: The king cobra is actually a “royal family” of four distinct species, according to new research.

last august, P. Gowri Shankarbiologist and king cobra expert at the Kālinga Foundationa nonprofit conservation organization in Shivamogga, India, and colleagues reported four genetically unique lines of king cobra. They identified them by region: Western Ghats (southwestern India), Indochinese (eastern India and China), Indo-Malaysian (Indonesia and Malaysia) and the island of Luzon (Philippines). The scientific names of the snakes have yet to be approved by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.

Years of fearless snake trapping in the tropics rainforests, combined with new technology capable of analyzing severely degraded museum specimens, finally produced enough DNA for scientists to correctly identify the additional species.

“If it’s a frog, if it’s a turtle, it would have been easier,” Shankar says of their work. “The king cobra is another story.”

When disturbed, a king cobra can rear up to eye level and deliver enough venom to kill an elephant. Shankar says he is one of the few people to have survived a king cobra bite, a fortune he attributes to the small amount of venom injected by the snake. The experience also motivated him to find a more targeted treatment for king cobra bites.

Indeed, whether cobras are different enough to be four distinct species could have major consequences. real-world ramifications, he says, particularly the possibility of producing a more effective antivenom that could specifically target the individual venoms of these species. (Read how harnessing the power of venom could lead to new drugs.)

What’s more, adds Shankar, identifying the new species could boost conservation efforts for the snakes, which are shrinking across their range due to deforestation and urbanization. the The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the king cobra as vulnerable to extinction.

In light of the findings, the IUCN plans to reassess the conservation status of the king cobra, says Philip Bowlescoordinator of the organization’s Red List of Snakes and Lizards Authority, which studies reptiles in the wild around the world and determines their conservation status.

A snake of another color

” After having watched [king cobras] closely for over 50 years, you could see that they are… different,” says Romulus Whitaker, a longtime snake expert and founder of India’s Chennai Snake Park, a nonprofit that educates the public about the snakes.

“We just needed someone to do the hard work to prove it,” he says. (Read more about “Snake Man”‘s unconventional life in India.)

For example, scientists have wondered why adult king cobras in Thailand and neighboring countries have more than 70 off-white cobras. bands encircling their bodies, while those in the Philippines have only a few barely discernible.

There are also variations in nesting behaviors. The female king cobra is the only snake that builds nests for her eggs, which is no small feat for a limbless creature. She uses her body to put twigs and leaves in place. (Go inside the largest gathering of snakes in the world.)

Western Ghats females abandon their eggs soon after they nest, while Indochinese mothers keep the eggs in the nest until about a week before they hatch.

A misunderstood reptile

Shankar hopes the new attention to king cobras will help change attitudes towards them.

In rural India, many Hindus revere the king cobra and see its presence in their fields as a sign of generosity. But elsewhere the serpent is despised, often leading to indiscriminate killings.

“There’s a lot of hype about this snake, so people are scared to death of it,” says Whitaker. “In polls, people will inevitably say king cobra when asked about the most dangerous snakes,” he says. There are no official statistics on how many people have been bitten by king cobras, but Whitaker says they are likely only responsible for a handful of snakebites.

King cobras are generally shy, and if a person comes face-to-face with one, its formidable size and dog-like “grunt” are more than enough to avoid any conflict.

Hunters who pursue animals for their skins and body parts to use in traditional medicine are the most likely bite victims, but wildlife rescuers who remove king cobras from people’s homes are also at risk. (Learn more about the Arabian cobra, which was recently added to National Geographic’s Photo Ark.)

Far from being a serious threat to humans, king cobras help us by mainly eating other snakes, including their own. Among their meals are poisonous snakes such as vipers, whose bites kill up to nearly 140,000 people worldwide each year.

Better antivenoms to come?

People bitten by a king cobra are usually given a generic antivenom produced by the Thai Red Crosswhich is not always effective against king cobra bites in various parts of the snake’s range.

Because the chemical composition of venom can vary even in species, there might be a limit to the immediate usefulness of this finding, says Kartik Sunagar, snake venom expert and associate professor at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Because king cobra bites are relatively rare, there’s also not much incentive for a company to develop relevant products. (Learn more about finding a better antivenom.)

Several antivenom producers in India, including the Haffkine Institutedid not respond to National geographic‘s requests for comment on the potential for creating a new king cobra antivenom.

But this better understanding of the snake could still help in the development of slightly more targeted antivenoms in the short term and a drug more effective against all king cobra bites in the long term, Sunagar says.

“In the sense that we know that these populations require very specific treatment, this [discovery of new species] contributes to our efforts to develop better antivenoms,” he says.

Saving a “Majestic Serpent”

Conservationists are concerned about the future of some of the king cobras, including those on the island of Luzon. Their population is not known, but Shankar says it is likely small and susceptible to being wiped out by major natural disasters, such as an earthquake and tsunami, which are common in the region.

“One more tsunami and this species in Luzon could be extinct in a few years,” Shankar says. “We wouldn’t have known that without the knowledge of those specific bloodlines.”

Meanwhile, Shankar and his colleagues haven’t finished their search for other king cobra species: they think there may be at least one more in Indonesia.

“To me, the king cobra is a majestic snake,” Shankar says. “It made me fall in love.”

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