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Do Spitting Cobras Really Spit?

No, they actually spray their venom through modified fangs. Inside the spitting snake's fangs are channels which make a 90-degree bend in the lower front of each fang. When these snakes are threatened, the muscles of the venom gland squeeze the venom sack, projecting the venom forward while air expelled from the snake's lung blows or sprays the venom at its intended victim with the velocity equivalent to that of a water pistol.

Spitting cobras can spray venom 30 to 40 times in succession and still deliver a lethal bite. Spraying venom is only used for self-defense, not for killing its prey. The snake aims for the eyes of a perceived threat, where a direct hit can cause temporary shock and blindness by severely inflaming the cornea and conjunctiva. If left untreated, the blindness could become permanent.

Spitting cobras are very accurate, typically hitting at least one eye eight out of ten times from a distance of 4 to 8 feet. They spray their venom over a large area, increasing the chances of hitting the intended target--the eyes. The venom of spitting cobras partly consists of nerve poisons, but also contains components which are harmful to tissue.

There are several different species of spitting cobras distributed in Africa and Asia, including:

  • Black-Necked Spitting Cobra (Naja nigricollis)
  • Black Spitting Cobra (Naja woodi)
  • Western Barred Spitting Cobra (Naja nigricincta)
  • Red Spitting Cobra (Naja pallida)
  • Mozambique Spitting Cobra (Naja mossambica)
  • Malaysian Spitting Cobra (Naja sputatrix)
  • Black and White Spitting Cobra (Naja siamensis)
  • Sumatran Spitting Cobra (Naja sumatrana)
  • Nubian Spitting Cobra (Naja nubiae)

Spitting cobras are elapid snakes that eat frogs and rodents and bear live young. Elapid snakes are any of about 200 venomous snakes belonging to the Elapidae (cobra family) which also includes mambas, coral snakes and sea snakes. Elapid snakes are characterized by short fangs fixed in the front of the upper jaw.

The Rinkhals Cobra (Hemachatus haemachatus) is not a cobra, but is an elapid snake, meaning that it's closely related. However, like spitting cobras, Rinkhals Cobras also spray venom to defend themselves. But, if the Rinkhals Cobra doesn't have room to retreat and finds that the perceived threat is unfazed by its venom spray, it has another defense mechanism. It will roll over on its back, open its mouth and let the tongue hang out appearing to be dead to discourage the predator. Many meat-eaters won't eat something they perceive to have been dead for any length of time.

Treating Venom-sprayed Eyes

To treat venom-sprayed eyes, flush them out with plenty of milk. If milk is not available water will work. Urine is also acceptable in an emergency. If you get venom on your skin it's not dangerous, but open wounds could possibly become envenomed. Don't rub your eyes, and wash the venom off your skin as soon as possible to avoid accidently getting it in your eyes or on any open wounds.

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