King Cobra: A Venomous Snake's Diet and Mating Rituals

By: Desiree Bowie  | 
King cobra with its hood extended against a sky-blue background
When threatened or agitated, king cobras can spread a distinctive hood by extending their ribs and skin, displaying a pattern resembling a pair of spectacles or eyeglasses. Ryan McVay / Getty Images

The king cobra is the longest venomous snake in the world. This marvel of nature exudes fierceness with its distinct features and behaviors and can reach up to 18 feet (5.5 meters) in length.

Its intimidating hood, which expands when threatened, and its deep, loud "hiss" resembling a growl, add to the serpent's fearsome presence. But that signature hiss is not the only unique trait or behavior this snake possesses.


The mother king cobra is the only snake known to build a nest for its eggs, a rare behavior among snakes. This intelligence and parental care, combined with its potent venom capable of killing an elephant, underscore the king cobra's formidable status in the animal kingdom.


The king cobra, scientifically known as Ophiophagus hannah, has several physical characteristics that set it apart from other snake species.

They are the world's longest venomous snakes, capable of reaching lengths of up to 18.5 feet (5.6 meters) or more. These snakes typically have olive-green to brownish-black scales made of keratin (the same thing in human fingernails), with lighter yellow bands or crossbars along their body.


They also have distinctively large, prominent nostrils, which may aid in their sense of smell.

When threatened or agitated, king cobras can spread a distinctive hood by extending their ribs and skin, displaying a pattern resembling a pair of spectacles or eyeglasses. They have broad, elongated heads with prominent jaws, which allow them to deliver a potent venomous bite.

King cobras possess potent neurotoxic venom, capable of immobilizing or killing their prey. While they are generally reclusive and prefer to avoid human encounters, they can become aggressive and strike if they feel threatened or cornered.

These serpents also have notable longevity compared to other snakes, with a lifespan that can extend up to 20 years in the wild. But despite its name, the fierce and aggressive snake is not a true cobra in the taxonomic sense. In fact, it is the sole member of its own genus, Ophiophagus.



The king cobra has a diet that is quite specialized. Unlike many other snakes, it primarily preys on other snakes, both venomous and nonvenomous, which is how it earned its "snake-eater" name. (They particularly enjoy Asian rat snakes and pythons.)

This diet can include members of its own species, in cases of food scarcity — a behavior known as cannibalism. It may also consume other reptiles, such as lizards, and occasionally small mammals.


Its hunting technique involves using its potent venom to immobilize its prey quickly. The venom not only subdues the prey but also starts the digestive process by breaking down proteins. This specialized diet and efficient hunting strategy make the king cobra a dominant predator in its natural habitat.


Inhabiting diverse forested environments, this species is both revered and feared in many cultures, often featuring prominently in folklore and mythology. The king cobra resides in diverse forested regions across South and Southeast Asia, including Northern India, Southern China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia.

Its preferred habitats are dense highland forests and dense mangrove swamps, as well as bamboo thickets and areas adjacent to water bodies like rivers and streams.



Males exhibit increased territoriality and aggression during breeding season. They will engage in ritualistic combat with rival males — a dramatic display of intertwining and wrestling to establish dominance — primarily for mating rights.

This combat is more about showcasing strength and rarely results in death. Outside of breeding periods, males lead solitary lives, focusing on hunting and defending their territory.


Female king cobras show remarkable behavior in relation to reproduction. After mating, they engage in a rare activity among venomous snakes: building and guarding nests for their eggs.

This unusual level of parental care involves meticulously constructing a nest using leaves and debris, and then vigilantly guarding it until the eggs are close to hatching. After the hatchlings emerge, the female typically departs, leaving the young to fend for themselves.

The Combat Dance

Male king cobras impress rivals primarily through a display of strength and dominance in what is known as "combat dance." This behavior is most commonly observed during the mating season when males vie for the attention of a receptive female.

During this nonlethal but physically demanding ritual, two males will rise, elevating the upper part of their bodies, and entwine themselves around each other.

This display is not about biting but rather pushing and shoving; each snake attempts to overpower the other by pushing its rival's head to the ground. The goal is to demonstrate physical superiority without resorting to actual violence or the use of venom. The victorious male earns the right to mate with the female in the area.


What's Up With the Hiss?

The hiss of a king cobra is deeper and more guttural than other snake species. It is often described as a growl-like hiss. This is due to the snake's larger size and unique respiratory system, which enables it to produce a lower-pitched and more resonant sound.

Hissing serves as a means of intimidation. The combination of the hissing sound, the cobra's raised hood and its large size can be very intimidating to potential predators or threats. This display is meant to deter any potential attackers and prevent physical confrontations.


Outside of warning and intimidation, hissing can also be a form of communication that may be used as part of courtship rituals, territorial disputes or other social interactions with other cobras.

How Venomous Are King Cobras?

The king cobra's venom is not the most potent among venomous snakes, but it is still extremely dangerous due to the large amount it can deliver in a single bite.

King cobra venom contains a complex mix of neurotoxins, cardiotoxins and other compounds that can cause severe pain, blurred vision, vertigo, drowsiness, paralysis and respiratory failure.


If not treated promptly, a king cobra's bite can be fatal, primarily due to respiratory failure as the neurotoxins affect the nervous system. Its ability to inject large volumes of venom makes the king cobra one of the deadliest snakes in the world.

Surviving a king cobra bite is possible but highly dependent on immediate medical intervention. However, if antivenom is administered quickly after the bite, the chances of survival significantly increase.


Threats to Survival

Habitat destruction is a primary concern, as deforestation, agricultural expansion and urban development drastically reduce king cobras' natural living spaces and prey availability.

Additionally, the illegal wildlife trade poses a significant threat. King cobras are hunted for their skin, used in traditional medicines and painkillers, and sometimes captured for the international pet trade.


These practices decrease their population and disrupt the ecological balance in their native habitats. Conservation efforts and increased awareness are crucial to address these challenges and ensure the survival of this iconic species.

Conservation Status

The conservation status of the species is currently listed as "Vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This classification indicates that the species is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.

Conservation efforts for the king cobra include habitat protection and restoration, as well as research to better understand its ecology and behavior. Public education and awareness campaigns are also crucial to reduce fear and misconceptions about this species and to promote coexistence.


International and local laws protecting the king cobra, alongside effective enforcement, are essential to mitigate the impacts of poaching and illegal trade.

King Cobra vs. Indian Cobra: What Are the Differences?

Both cobra species are venomous and culturally significant snakes in Asia, yet they differ remarkably.

  • The king cobra can reach up to 18 feet (5.5 meters) in length, dwarfing the Indian cobra, which averages around 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters).
  • While king cobras inhabit dense highland forests, Indian cobras are more versatile, thriving in various environments including agricultural lands and populated areas.
  • A notable dietary distinction is that king cobras are ophiophagous (snakes that eat other snakes), preying mainly on other snakes — including the Indian cobra. In contrast, Indian cobras have a broader diet, consuming rodents, frogs and other small animals.
  • Although both species possess neurotoxic venom, the king cobra's is more potent. However, the Indian cobra is also a very dangerous snake: It accounts for more human fatalities, largely due to its proximity to human habitation.
  • Behaviorally, king cobras are reclusive and tend to avoid human contact, whereas Indian cobras are often encountered in human-modified environments.
  • Both snakes hold deep cultural and mythological significance in South Asia, but venomous Indian cobras features more prominently in religious rituals and iconography.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.