Like a scene out of the Jungle Book, an epic skirmish between an eagle and a cobra was caught on video by visitors to Kruger National Park in South Africa.
Uploaded online on Tuesday, the video was taken by Matthew McCreesh and Catherine van Eyk, both 26, of South Africa.
"Wow! What an incredible video," says Rowen van Eeden, a Cape Town-based behavioral ecologist and National Geographic explorer who studies Kruger's wildlife.
Such encounters are rarely seen, and even more rarely filmed, says van Eeden, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cape Town who is studying the decline of martial eagles in Kruger. (Watch highlights from the U.S. capital eagle cam.)
"As the eagle and cobra surreptitiously circle each other, the mighty bird tries to make a move on the deadly snake—before flapping his feathers as the cobra spits out poisonous venom," wrote the pair who uploaded the video.
"They continue to stare each other out—before the eagle eventually admits defeat and flies off."
The bird is most likely a brown snake eagle (Circaetus cinereus), trying to prey on a snouted cobra (Naja annulifera), says van Eeden. The snouted cobra can be identified by the dark banding on its throat, says South African herpetologist Johan Marais.
And although the voices heard in the video (and their written description) suggest the cobra is spitting, most likely it is actually making mock strikes, say van Eeden and Marais. Snouted cobras don't typically spit.
The largest of the snake (or serpent) eagles, brown snake eagles can weigh up to 5.3 pounds (2.4 kilograms) and have wingspans up to 5.3 feet (1.6 meters).
"They typically eat their prey whole, and there are records of them predating on even the most venomous of snakes, such as the renowned black mamba," says van Eeden.
Snouted cobras can reach a length up to 8.2 feet (2.5 meters) and pack powerful neurotoxic venom, which attacks the nervous system. A bite can be fatal in human beings.
Battles between the eagle and snake species are likely relatively common, although they are rarely seen by people, says Luke Dollar, a conservation biologist who often works in Africa and who manages National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative. That's partly due to recent declines in the number of brown snake eagles, which have seen their population shrink by 50 percent over the past two decades.
"The cobra looks to me to be already taxed or injured in some way, it's not moving very quickly," Dollar adds.
Snake eagles typically attack their prey from a perch, hitting it with considerable force and using their sharp talons to inflict damage. Yet the eagles are not immune to snake venom and rely on their speed and power to avoid bites. Another risk is getting trapped in the snake's coils, which may allow the cobra to overpower its attacker. The eagle's strategy is often to tire the snake out until it can strike the reptile in the back of the head.
Snake eagles are occasionally seen with necrotic legs after their battles with venomous snakes.
"It looks like the eagle is being really careful," says snake ecologist Matt Goode of the University of Arizona, another National Geographic explorer.
"The snake's venom is definitely nothing to mess with."