Cape cobra

Cape cobra

The Cape cobra, like all other cobras, is found mostly on the ground, but is also able to climb into trees and shrubs in search of food. When it comes across an enemy or perceived threat, it will usually lift head off the ground and spread its neck into a broader ‘hood’. 

Derivation of scientific name

The genus name, Naja, is the Latinisation of the Sanskrit word nāgá, which means ‘cobra’. The specific epithet, nivea, comes from the Latin nivis, meaning snowy, possibly referring to the whitish discolouration of the first preserved specimens seen by European taxonomists.

Common names

Cape cobra, yellow cobra (Eng.); Kaapse kobra, geelslang, koperkapel (Afr.); masumu (seSotho).

How to recognise a Cape cobra

The Cape Cobra is one of four non-spitting cobras found in southern Africa. An adult is about 1.2 m (to 1.6 m) in length, an varies in colour from light yellow to rich yellow, copper, or light to medium or dark brown and even black, often speckled with shades of brown and orange. Like other cobras, it can lift its head off the ground, face the enemy and spread the ribs to form a broader hood, especially when facing a perceived threat.  Young snakes have one or two dark throat bands. Cape cobras have fixed front fangs and they do not spit venom, but bite instead.

Getting around

Cape cobras are usually found on the ground, but can, at times, be seen climbing in trees and shrubs where they hunt for young birds and eggs in nests. It is usually diurnal (active during the day), but during very hot weather (high 30s and 40s) it will turn crepuscular (active during twilight and early evening).

Communicating

In self-defence or as a warning signal, it will usually lift its head off the ground, face the enemy and spread its ribs in a broad hood, striking readily. It may hiss as well. The hooding and hissing are not aggressive acts; instead they are warning signs to keep potential threats at a safe distance. Like most snakes, Cape cobras will rather flee from humans than attack and bite them. They do not spit venom, but bite instead, transmitting a very powerful and fast acting neurotoxic venom. Any bite from a Cape cobra is life-threatening and needs urgent medical care.

Distribution

The Cape cobra is endemic to southern Africa and is found widely in the Western and Northern Cape provinces, and into the Free State, North West Province, western parts of Gauteng, Eastern Cape, Botswana and southern Namibia. It is restricted to the western deserts and scrublands of southern Africa.

Habitat

Usually found on the ground, e.g. dry sandy areas (the Karoo and Kalahari), informal settlements and in semi-urban areas as well. It usually inhabits open areas such as grassland, arid Karoo and fynbos habitats throughout its range. Cape cobras are also able to climb into trees and shrubs in search for young birds and eggs in nests.

Food/ diet

The Cape cobra actively hunts during the day; their staple diet is rodents and birds, but they will also eat frogs, lizards and other snakes. They are often seen hunting in Sociable Weaver nests in the Kalahari.

Sex and life cycles

Their normal mating period is between September and October. A female snake usually lays up to 20 eggs in summer in a suitable area; this could be in underground open holes, rodent’s burrows, abandoned termite mounds and even under rocks.

Family life

Cape cobras are usually solitary. Males and females can be seen together during mating season (September to October), at which time they may be more aggressive than usual. Hatchlings are up to 40 cm in length and are completely independent from the time they hatch.

The big picture

There are four non-spitting cobras in southern Africa. All of them have neurotoxic, or nerve–destroying, venom, and a bite can be fatal if the patient does not get urgent medical help. The neurotoxic venom causes respiratory failure, and bite victims may need artificial respiration until the anti-venom can be injected.

Friends and Foes

Cape cobras are usually eaten by Herpestidae such as mongoose, civet, honey badgers, meerkats and certain birds of prey species that are known to feed on cobras, such as secretary birds and snake eagles. Some other snakes also feed on cobras.

Cape cobra

Smart strategies

Like most other snakes, except some adders, the Cape cobra prefers to flee from danger. When faced by a human, it will lift its head off the ground, face the enemy and spread its neck and ribs in a broad hood. If the threat (e.g. a human) stands still, it will most likely return to the ground and move away. Although found mostly on the ground, it is able to climb into trees and shrubs in search for food or when confronted. Changing from diurnal (day active) to crepuscular (active during the twilight/evening) is a smart move where daytime temperatures can sometimes reach into the high 40s, such as in the Kalahari and other parts of the Northern Cape, North West Province, Botswana and Namibia – as being out in the sun in such high temperatures can be dangerous to all reptiles, including snakes.

Poorer world without me

Cape cobras are one of the most common snake species around Karoo farms where they are usually beneficial to farmers by controlling the occurrence of rodent pests. Rodents are their preferable staple food, which includes frogs, birds and other snakes.

People & I

Many farming communities in the Karoo value and acknowledge the help of Cape cobras in the controlling of rodent pests.

Conservation status and what the future holds

Least Concern.

Relatives

Cobras are members of the genus Naja, and are included in the family Elapidae. The Elapidae family includes other snakes such as coral snakes, kraits and mambas and rinkhals. They are slender-bodied, fairly large snakes with the ability to raise the upper part of their body of the ground and form hoods by spreading their necks and ribs. Other snakes of this family often encountered in South Africa include the snouted cobra (Naja annulifera), the forest cobra (N. melanoleuca), the Mozambique spitting cobra (N. mossambica), and the rinkhals (Hemachatus haemachatus).  

References and further reading

  • Branch, B. 2001. A photographic guide to snakes and other reptiles of southern Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  • Bates, M.F., Branch, W.R., Bauer, A.M., Burger, M., Marais, J., Alexander, G.J. & De Villiers, M.S. Atlas and Red List of the reptiles of southern Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Suricata 1. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
  • Marais, J. 2005. A complete guide to snakes of southern Africa. Random House Struik, Cape Town.
  • Phelps, T. 1981. Poisonous snakes. Littlehampton Book Services Ltd, UK.
  • O’Shea, M. 2011. Venomous snakes of the World. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, USA.

Author

Stemmer Ngalo

SANBI (Free State National Botanical Garden)

March 2016

Official Common Name

Cape cobra

Scientific Name and Classification

Kingdom

Animalia

Phylum

Chordata

Class

Reptilia

Order

Squamata

Suborder

Serpentes

Family

Elapidae

Genus

Naja

Species

N. nivea (Linnaeus, 1758)

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