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What does a cobra look like?

October 31, 2010

I can see from the statistics of Dokmai Dogma that many people read my blog on the banded krait vs the Laotian wolf snake. When talking to foreign settlers here in Chiang Mai, it is clear many people are uncertain about how a cobra looks like. Of course, when the hood is expanded and when it has markings on the back of the hood, there is little doubt, but here in Chiang Mai, many of the cobras are plain, without any markings at all. In addition, there are two forest mock cobras which display a hood to look dangerous (Plagiopholis muchalis – Assamese mountain snake and Pseudoxenodon macrops – big-eyed bamboo snake).

The cobras are mainly nocturnal hunters, and since they prefer frogs and toads, any house in the vicinity of a rice field is surrounded by cobras, even your hotel! The good news is they are not very aggressive, but do not mess with them! Most paddy or ‘city’ cobras in the Chiang Mai valley seem to be Indochinese spitting cobras (Naja siamensis), so a safety distance of at least two meters is recommended, although they rarely spit unless attacked by a macho man. The king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) tend to stick to the forest.

If you find a cobra in your garden, better alert the family to stay away from the garden until next morning. Your dog has to be taken indoors. The cobra probably used your garden for a temporary rest, digesting a meal. However, check for holes in the wall or fence, so that its return is not facilitated. Do not leave doors or windows open. At Dokmai Garden we rarely see cobras thanks to a 1 km fence with chicken net surrounding us. Although cobras may climb over the fence, sightings are very rare and nobody has ever been bitten here.

As to identification, a cobra is usually strikingly large (1-1.5 m) while most garden snakes tend to be tiny in comparison. A cobra can be uniformly black or grey here in Chiang Mai. A look-alike is the massive ‘common rat snake’ (Ptyas mucosus), which has black crossbars on the tail, and a brown head. It is a useful rat hunter and many locals like to eat this species.

If you find a dead large snake you can easily check if it belongs to the cobra family or not. Look at the picture below. There is only one scale separating the eye from the nostril. This is the definition of the cobra family, including the equally dangerous kraits (Bungarus spp). Other snakes have more scales between the eye and the nostril.

Eric Danell

Many Chiang Mai cobras look like this.

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