Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 199, Issue 5, pp 335–340 | Cite as

Potential targets aimed at by spitting cobras when deterring predators from attacking

  • Ruben Andres Berthé
  • Guido Westhoff
  • Horst Bleckmann
Original Paper


When threatened, spitting cobras eject venom towards the face of an aggressor. To uncover the relevant cues used by cobras for face recognition we determined how often artificial targets equipped with or without eyes elicited spitting behavior. In addition, we measured whether and how target shape and size influenced the spitting behavior of cobras. Results show that oval- and round-shaped targets were most effective, while triangles with the same surface area as oval ‘face like’ targets hardly elicited spitting. The likelihood of spitting depended on neither the presence, the spatial arrangement (horizontal or vertical) nor the surface texture (shiny or matt) of glass eyes. Most likely, cobras do not specifically aim at the eyes of an offender but at the center of the body part closest to them. As this is usually the face of an animal, this strategy will result in at least one eye of the offender being hit most of the time.


Spitting Cobra Eyes Defensive behavior Venom 


  1. Barbour T (1922) Rattlesnakes and spitting snakes. Copeia 1922:36–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Berthé RA, de Pury S, Bleckmann H, Westhoff G (2009) Spitting cobras adjust their venom distribution to target distance. J Comp Physiol A 195:753–757CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Broadley DG (1959) The herpetology of Southern Rhodesia. Part 1: snakes. Bull Mus Comp Zool 102:3–100Google Scholar
  4. Burger J, Gochfeld M, Murray BG Jr (1991) Role of a predator’s eye size in risk perception by basking black iguana, Ctenosaura similis. Anim Behav 42:471–476CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cascardi J, Young BA, Husic HD, Sherma J (1999) Protein variation in the venom spat by the red spitting cobra, Naja pallida (Reptilia: Serpentes). Toxicon 37:1271–1279PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. de Pury S (2006) Spuckverhalten und Spuckmuster von Speikobras (Naja pallida und Naja nigricollis). diploma thesis, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität MünsterGoogle Scholar
  7. FitzSimons FW (1912) The snakes of South Africa. T. Maskew Miller, Cape Town & PretoriaGoogle Scholar
  8. Gallup GG, Nash RF, Ellison AL Jr (1971) Tonic immobility as a reaction to predation: artificial eyes as a fear stimulus for chickens. Psychon Sci 23:79–80Google Scholar
  9. Goring Jones MD (1900) Can a cobra eject its poison. J Bombay Nat Hist Soc 13:376Google Scholar
  10. Greene HW (1999) Schlangen: Faszination einer unbekannten Welt. Birkhäuser, BaselGoogle Scholar
  11. Grüntzig J, Lenz W, Berkemeier B, Mebs D (1985) Experimental studies on the spitting cobra ophthalmia (Naja nigricollis). Graefes Arch Clin Exp 223:196–201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Herzog W, Leonard TR (2002) Force enhancement following stretching of skeletal muscle: a new mechanism. J Exp Biol 205:1275–1283PubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Hobley CW (1911) Spitting cobra. J East Afr Uganda Nat Hist Soc 1:98–101Google Scholar
  14. Ismail M, Al-Bekairi AM, El-Bedaiwy AM, Abd-El Salam MA (1993a) The ocular effects of spitting cobras: I. The ringhals cobra (Hemachatus haemachatus) venom induced corneal opacification syndrome. Clin Toxicol 31:31–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Ismail M, Al-Bekairi AM, El-Bedaiwy AM, Abd-El Salam MA (1993b) The ocular effects of spitting cobras: II. Evidence that cardiotoxins are responsible for the corneal opacification syndrome. Clin Toxicol 31:45–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Koch M, Sachs WB (1927) Über zwei giftspeiende Schlangen, Sepedon haemachates und Naia nigricollis. Zool Anz 70:155–159Google Scholar
  17. Kopstein F (1930) Die Giftschlangen Javas und ihre Bedeutung für den Menschen. Zoomorphologie 19:339–353Google Scholar
  18. O’Brien TJ, Dunlap WP (1975) Tonic immobility in the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus, Rathbun): its relation to threat of predation. J Comp Physiol Psychol 89:86–94PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Rasmussen S, Young B, Krimm H (1995) On the “spitting” behavior in cobras (Serpentes: Elapidae). J Zool 237:27–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Warrell DA, David Omerod L (1976) Snake venom ophthalmia and blindness caused by the spitting cobra Naja nigricollis in Nigeria. Am J Hyg 25:525–529Google Scholar
  21. Westhoff G, Tzschätzsch K, Bleckmann H (2005) The spitting behavior of two species of spitting cobras. J Comp Physiol A 191:873–881CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Westhoff G, Boetig M, Bleckmann H, Young BA (2010) Target tracking during venom “spitting” by cobras. J Exp Biol 213:1797–1802PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Wüster W, Crookes S, Ineich I et al (2007) The phylogeny of cobras inferred from mitochondrial DNA sequences: evolution of venom spitting and the phylogeography of the African spitting cobras (Serpentes: Elapidae: Naja nigricollis complex). Mol Phylogenet Evol 45:437–453PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Young BA, Boetig M, Westhoff G (2009a) Functional bases of the spatial dispersal of venom during cobra “spitting”. Physiol Biochem Zool 82:80–89PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Young BA, Boetig M, Westhoff G (2009b) Spitting behaviour of hatchling red spitting cobras Naja pallida. Herpetol J 19:185–191Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ruben Andres Berthé
    • 1
  • Guido Westhoff
    • 1
  • Horst Bleckmann
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Comparative NeurobiologyUniversity of Bonn, Institute of ZoologyBonnGermany

Personalised recommendations