Cobras Spit Venom at Eyes With Nearly Perfect Aim

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
February 10, 2005

If you're smart, you'll never come within six feet (two meters) of a spitting cobra. If you're unlucky and by some horrible chance you do, a word of advice: Close your eyes.

Katja Tzschätzsch, a research student at the University of Bonn in Germany, has demonstrated that the red Mozambique spitting cobra and the black-necked spitting cobra deliberately aim for the eyes of whomever or whatever they feel threatened by.

The lab results don't surprise snake experts.

"To my knowledge there hasn't been a lot of work done on whether they actually aim for the eyes. It's mostly been anecdotal evidence," said Bill Altimari, a herpetologist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. "But I'd be surprised if anyone in the field thinks otherwise. My experience has been that the red spitter and the black-neck went right for your eyes. Our keepers at the Philadelphia Zoo [where I used to work] always wore face masks."

Sam Lee, assistant supervisor in the Bronx Zoo's department of herpetology, concurs, again based on personal experience.

"These animals always aim for keepers' goggles," he said.

"Anyone at the zoo working with this type of snake wears a face mask because that's usually where they aim," added Dino Ferri, assistant curator for reptiles and amphibians at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

If everyone knows spitting cobras aim for the eyes, why ask the question?

"It was necessary to actually show this in order to ask the next question: How do cobras identify the eyes in different animals and humans?" said Guido Westhoff, the professor at the University of Bonn who supervised Tzschätzsch's work.

The Experiment

Katja Tzschätzsch used four red Mozambique and six black-necked spitting cobras. In her experiments she either stood face-to-face with them—protected by a plastic visor—or she used photos.

She recorded the spitting process using a high-speed video camera. "The snakes really do spit only at moving faces," was her first finding. "Movements involving the hand elicited no response from any of the snakes."

Continued on Next Page >>


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