Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/November 1894/The Cobra and Other Serpents

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DURING a three years' residence in southern Africa cobras and other snakes were my pets and most intimate companions. They occupied my bedroom; they sunned themselves in my windows; they coiled themselves in my armchair and on my study table, and made themselves quite at home among my book shelves and bric-a-brac. Baby cobras were born into my hands, and adult cobras accompanied me coiled in my pocket whenever I went out to take sly observations, through a binocular glass, of the movements of their brothers and sisters still free among the rocks and bushes of plain or hillside.

Above all his peers in the ophidian kingdom, the royal cobra claimed my chief attention. His beauty, the web of Oriental romance in which his name is intertwined, and the dreadful destruction of human life with which he is credited, make him to all of us an exceedingly interesting animal. As man alone stands up and walks erect, the acknowledged king among living things, so it is only the cobra of all the reptile kind that raises himself perpendicularly from the ground and expands his neck as if in fancied pride of his power to dispute with humanity the supremacy over animal life. Year after year, over the whole of southern Asia, but especially in the Indian Peninsula, a vast multitude of men, women, and children fall victims to his deadly fangs. If each year, within the bounds of British India alone, a town of ten thousand inhabitants were to be utterly depopulated by a painful form of death, and if this calamity had been constantly recurring, as far back through the centuries as history has record of, who would not be filled with commiseration for a people so afflicted? And yet in that same country this number of human beings is annually carried off by the bite of poisonous serpents, and the world looks for it as a matter of course. Thus the dreaded cholera itself is not a greater destroyer of human life, as it is but an occasional visitant. As the cobra is blamed for nearly all this appalling mortality, we need not seek out further reason for giving him the title of "king of deadly serpents."

Sir Joseph Fayrer, in his magnificent Thanatophidia of India, gives us copious information regarding his poison, its terrible work among the Indian peoples, and the various methods of counteracting its effects; and more recently our own able inquirer. Dr. Weir Mitchell, has given us its analysis. But as regards the story of cobra life itself, cobra capabilities, and cobra idiosyncrasies, we are still at the mercy of Pliny and his successors. From book to book the old yarns of his fondness for milk and his susceptibility to music are banded down as heirlooms, and will continue to find believers until writing naturalists keep living cobras at their elbows.

Under the general name "cobra" are included several species, differing little in general appearance. They are found all over southern Asia and throughout the entire continent of Africa. In India, Naja tripudians is common; in North Africa, Naja haja; and in South Africa, Sepedon hæmachates. In the other continents no true cobra exists. They are all hooded snakes, and

PSM V46 D078 Cobra di capello naja tripudians.jpg
Fig. 1.—Cobra di Capello {Naja tripudians).

all exceedingly venomous. In color they vary much; some are yellow, some are brown, others black—while in general all are banded more or less distinctly with regular light and dark rings. They are usually about four feet in length and two inches in diameter, but can attain to six feet.

All terrestrial deadly serpents may be divided into two groups—the Viperidæ which have the head covered with small, irregular scales; and the Elapidæ, which have it covered with large, regularly disposed plates. Taking the rattlesnake as the representative of the Viperidæ and the cobra of the Elapidæ, it will be instructive to note some of the differences between these two famous poisoners. The head in the rattler is broad and flat and the neck very thin; its body increases in diameter toward the middle and gradually tapers oil to the tail. In the cobra the head, neck, and body are of the same thickness until the tail commences. In the rattlesnake the eyes have a vertical pupil, like a cat's; in the cobra the pupil is round. In the rattlesnake the fangs are long, well curved, very movable, thin, and with the end of the poison duct coming out almost in the same line with the point of the fang; in the cobra the fang is very short, slightly curved, scarcely movable, strong, and with the end of the poison duct coming out at a large angle with the point. In disposition the rattler is much more sluggish and not nearly so timorous as the cobra. To meet an assailant, the rattlesnake will arrange himself coiled carefully, like a spring, in a horizontal position; while the cobra prepares no coil, but raises himself up on high perpendicular from the ground. As to the manner of securing their prey, the rattlesnake is like a cat: he lies in wait for it in a suitable locality, and then springs on it unawares, generally waiting till its death struggles have ceased before swallowing it. The cobra, on the contrary, hunts up his victims, pursues them like a dog, and swallows them alive when caught. There is also, as Dr. Weir Mitchell has shown, a marked chemical variance between their poisons.

All these differences are, as a rule, applicable to their respective classes; and it is worthy of mention that in the several points enumerated, excepting as regards the poison arrangements, the Viperidæ agree with the true boas and the Elapidæ with the colubrine or common harmless snakes. So it will be understood that the cobra is rather a cousin to the black snake than to the rattler. In searching for his prey, he glides about without anything remarkable in his appearance to denote that he is a cobra; but, when excited by fear or anger, he raises his head and from one third to one half of his body perpendicularly from the ground, while the remainder is gathered beneath into a coil of support. At the same time the upper ribs, from the head downward for five or six inches or more, spread themselves out laterally, carrying the skin with them, thus making of his neck part a thin, flattened oval disk four or five inches broad. This wide flatness of the neck is called, the "hood," and above it the head appears pointing horizontally to the front. His disposition is so extremely nervous and timid that he will strike at a moving adversary long before he comes near enough to reach him with effect. If you stand before a cobra thus erect and alarmed, and move alternately your left and right hands up and down, he will strike repeatedly to the left and right, following your motions, bringing his head and neck flat on the ground each time, and at every stroke drawing closer to you. In striking thus he hisses audibly and instantly reassumes his erect position, and thus he continues to act as long as danger menaces or a safe avenue of escape does not present itself. This turning to the left and right after one's movements and striking downward is the so-called "dancing" which superficial observers have attributed to the power of PSM V46 D080 Cobra head showing the gape of the mouth.jpgFig. 2.—Head of the Cobra, showing Gape of the Mouth. music. Even after a slight acquaintance with snake dancing I began to suspect that music had nothing to do with it. Before long I was convinced on the subject.

It happened, I believe, in 1877, that Sir Bartle Frere, Governor of the British dominions in South Africa, when on his way eastward to settle some troubles preceding the outbreak of the war with the southern Kafirs, paid a visit to my collection at Grahamstown. He arrived unexpectedly and found me on my knees with my sleeves rolled up, washing out my floor, for it was impossible to get a servant to enter the room. Seeing there all the snakes of the country living before him, he was intensely interested, and at once singled out the cobra as an old acquaintance, for he had spent much of his life in India. Many things he told me of Indian snake-charming; but when I made the cobras dance, faint away as if dead, and by a touch return them to life again, he asked in some astonishment how it happened that I did so without the aid of music. I explained the "dancing" as the natural tactics of the cobra in defense and attack, and the fainting and recovery as consequences of an extremely nervous and overexcitable temperament. But my visitor clung to his old opinion, saying that my belief that they never really danced to the music was opposed to the teachings of natural history and to the experience of every one who had lived in India. Next day, when the astute Sir Bartle was on his way to the frontier to charm the turbulent chiefs with diplomacy, I invited a flute-player to charm my snakes. I myself went into the room to note results and sat down in my usual place among my pets, leaving the musician outside in the hall, so placed that the snakes could not see him. He played his sweetest tunes. The "Last Rose of Summer," "Annie Laurie," and "Home, Sweet home" had no effect, so I called to him to play something quick and lively. Accordingly, lie gave us "Pop goes the Weasel." "Miss McLeod's Reel" and "The White Cockade"; but never a snake moved. I then invited him inside, but the result was the same, the flute was a failure. Next day I tried the violin. The performer again sat outside, but all his efforts were useless; both quick and slow music were alike lost upon them. On my invitation he came in and sat still a few moments preparatory to commencing afresh. He soon thought himself an Orpheus; for as he began playing, the cobras stood up on the floor. "Aha!" said he, "see that!" However, believing that they were only alarmed at the quick movements of his arm, I stood over between him and them, thus cutting off their view, whereupon they showed that their fears were quieted by gently lowering themselves to the floor.

On the table was a glass-fronted wooden box in which was a large puff adder. I got the musician to sit close opposite to this and play his loudest, but the snake never showed the slightest sign. Then at my request he went round behind the cage and let one end of the violin rest on the top of it. At first he played the higher notes, and the snake showed no sign; but when he touched the deep bass chords the animal swelled himself up and began to blow as if alarmed. Thus from the instrument resting on the wood of the top the vibration was conveyed to the whole box, and the snake felt it throughout his entire body where he lay in contact with it, in the very same way that I myself felt it when I laid my hand upon it.

Many trials were made with other instruments, but always with the same results, viz., 1. Music from an unseen performer had no effect whatever. 2. If the performer were seen, any noticeable movements of his would alarm the snakes, but in exactly the same way as if he made no noise at all. 3. They gave signs of disturbance when the vibration, especially of bass sounds, was communicated to the material on which they lay.

Thus was proved not only that cobras do not dance to music, but that, far from being charmed with the melody, the poor animal is only frightened at the movements of the musician, and that the apparent dancing and bowing are only so many half-hearted attempts to strike at the performer or some one moving in his vicinity. Furthermore, I was led to the conclusion that snakes can not hear any sound with sufficient distinctness to determine their acts, unless it is so great as to cause objects in contact with their skin to vibrate sensibly to the touch, and that even then they can only be said to feel the sound's effects.

At the present moment as I write there is on the table before me a glass-fronted box in which are some of our common garter snakes. On the top of this box is placed an alarm clock. Now, when the alarm goes off in this position the garters always move a little, for the vibration is communicated to the wood and can be plainly felt with the finger-tips; but when the clock is on the cloth-covered table close by and not in contact with the wood on PSM V46 D082 Skull of poisonous snake.jpgFig. 3.—Skull of Poisonous Snake. which they lie, they never give a sign of having heard it.

When I lived on the island of Trinidad, I had a large collection of West Indian and South American serpents which it was necessary to feed on animals of many different species. It was always noticeable that neither boa, viper elaps, nor coluber ever gave the slightest heed to the voices of these, while at sight of the moving prey they manifested very evident signs of recognition. Snakes as a rule are very timid, and as I often had visitors at feeding time, it used to be necessary to warn them that any stirring about of arms or legs would be sure to delay the dinner; but no restriction was ever needed to be placed on conversation, except that the turning of the head was forbidden—each had to talk straight to his front, no matter whom he addressed.

During the past four or five years I have hunted extensively over the woods of northern South America, from the Bay of Panama to the Delta of the Orinoco, often alone, sometimes with others. Now, when I had company it would be frequently necessary to call on their assistance in capturing some of the long, swift-running snakes. If one of these were discovered some distance off, resting close by a fallen tree, it was my method to go round to the other side of the old trunk and come up unseen, often within a yard of him. There I would shout directions to my friends, sometimes at the top of my voice, where to post themselves and where to head him off. This shouting never caused the snake to stir; but should I show the rim of my hat moving up even a hand's breadth over the intervening trunk, he would be off like a racehorse; for the eyes of a serpent, though dull to note form and color, are exceedingly quick to detect motion.

Now, it may be mentioned that snakes have no external ears, their heads being entirely covered, like the rest of the body, with a tough and scaly skin. Yet in how far they may be able to detect sound waves in the air, as a general evidence of something unusual, with the delicate tip of the restless bifid tongue, is a subject that requires investigation; but that they can appreciate music in this or any other way is, as has been said above, absolutely untrue. How such an idea as that snakes are fond of music and milk ever gained credence among men calling themselves scientists only shows how few really scientific observers we have.

Men sometimes do strange things for the love of knowledge, and it was this love which caused me to live on such intimate terms with my scaly but graceful and gentle friends. I took them into my house to live with me. This was the best way to know them perfectly; and the more I knew them, the more I knew that they did not know me. I soon found out that neither cobras nor any other serpents can ever become capable of attachment, nor even distinguish one person from another, nor distinguish a man from any large animal, nor even distinguish a man from a tree stump until he gives evidence of his life by motion.

During my stay in South Africa I had many cobras, all of which I captured myself, except those born in my collection. Now, cobra-hunting is a very dangerous kind of sport, and had I known of its perils otherwise than by experience it is probable that I never would have attempted it. The first two or three I caught safely, and nothing particular occurred to show that there was a special danger in taking them which did not equally exist in the capture of other deadly snakes. But I found out that in three important particulars of defense and attack the cobra differs from all his fellow-poisoners: 1. He rarely opens his mouth when striking, but actually gives a deadly blow without biting. 3. He bites deliberately when he is in a state of apparent death from muscular contortion, and will then hang on like a bulldog, the venom flowing all the time into the wounds in which his fangs are buried, until he drops off at last from sheer exhaustion. 3. He can squirt the venom from his fangs into a person's eyes, and thus blind him for a time at least,

I had often heard of the "spuugh slang," or spitting snake, but, looking at the thing from a too human point of view—as we are all, unfortunately, overmuch inclined to do when considering animals—I could not understand how a snake, not having fleshy lips and a bulky tongue, could be said to spit as we understand the word; and hence could no more believe in spitting snakes than I would in unicorns or fiery dragons. However, the result proved that oftentimes a story which on the face of it seems impossible has, after all, a certain fund of truth lying concealed somewhere at bottom.

One day, being alone in the bush, I saw a cobra banded with black and white. He was in an open glade, gliding about through branches of a thorny, yellow-blossomed acacia. The sun was blazing down fiercely on him as, with half-distended hood held close to the ground, he slowly passed through the leaves and flowers. For a few minutes I watched his movements through my binocular glass; but, fearing he might notice me and escape into some hole, I picked up my six-foot hunting stick and rushed toward him, intending to press his head to the ground with it, and then take him by the neck with my hand. He saw me coming, and, like a valiant warrior that knew his power, he faced round and stood erect with expanded hood and quivering tongue ready to receive me. His bright black eyes sparkled with energetic defiance, and every fiber of his being was electrified with excitement. While I was yet ten feet away he struck toward me with such force that the impetus carried him flat to the ground. In trying to get my stick across his neck he dodged it, and it came instead across the middle of his body. At this moment he was between me and the sun, with about five feet between his face and mine. I looked into his eyes and held him down firmly. His rage seemed redoubled. He leaned backward to make a more vigorous dash at me, and as he struck forward the mouth partially opened, and two tiny streams of venom shot from his fangs as from a syringe, one of them catching me on the face just beneath the eye. Had it gone a little higher up I should have been blinded for months, and perhaps had my sight permanently injured. This unexpected attack made me hasten the capture; so, getting his neck pressed down to the ground with the stick, I soon had him grasped in my hand just behind the head in such a way that he couldn't possibly turn to bite me—which he made every effort to do for some minutes afterward. Taking him home with much satisfaction I made him thereafter my fellow-lodger. While living in his cage, I observed him many times squirt the venom from his fangs against the glass of its front. Thenceforth my doubts about spitting snakes were removed.

In order to understand how it is that he can eject the venom as high as a person's face—which we never hear of the viperine snakes doing—it is well to consider carefully the approximate difference in the fangs of the cobra and those of the rattler. Snakes of the class Viperidæ can and do under certain circumstances eject the venom somewhat similarly, but their methods of striking are more deliberate usually, and instead of the first and more copious discharge being thus lost, as is often the case with the cobra, it is, on the contrary, injected into the veins of enemy or prey. This premature squirting out of the fluid in the cobra is not to be taken as a voluntary act. It has been mentioned above that lie is so excitable that he will strike at a moving adversary long before he comes near enough to actually hit his object; and it is in striking thus from a distance that the poison-controlling muscles act as if he really struck something, and the distended gland gives way to the pressure, forcing the contents, which in other circumstances would have been injected into the flesh, to go instead in two thin streams through the air.

In regard to the manner in which the cobra strikes with effect without opening his mouth, it is necessary to state that while the fangs of the rattlesnake and other viperine snakes are laid horizontally back along the upper jaw when the mouth is closed and only erected when the mouth is widely open, it is not so in the cobra; but whether his mouth be open or shut, his fangs are always PSM V46 D085 Punctures or bites of snakes.jpgFig. 4.—Punctures or Bites of Snakes. partially or wholly erect, and not in the true sense of the word reclinable. Now, usually when he strikes at an adversary his mouth does not open as does the rattlesnake's, but he simply hits with his chin the point he aims at, so that, the mouth being still shut and the fangs during the act coming out over and slightly below the lower lip, these protruding fang-points penetrate the skin, while at the same instant the potent venom is squirted with force through these natural hypodermic syringes into the superficial punctures. Hence it is that on the bare legs of the natives this so-called "bite" is usually fatal, while the slight protection of trousers saves the European from danger.

As to the third peculiarity of this snake—viz., the fit of temporary lockjaw into which he is liable to fall and the terribly prolonged and real bite he can give when in that state—the account of an interesting adventure I once had will give a fitting illustration. It was a most wonderful exhibition of reptilian hysterics.

In the midst of a South African summer, when the springs and rivers are dried up, the snakes congregate in unusual numbers around the dams which are built by the colonists to store up in the ravines for themselves and their cattle the drinking supply afforded during the rains by the mountain torrents. At one of these reservoirs in Carrie's Kloof, near Grahamstown, I had secured several fine serpents, and was not surprised therefore when one afternoon, as I was sitting by an upper window, I saw a boy running from that direction toward the house, shouting as loud as he could bawl, "A snake, sir—a monster snake!"

I ran downstairs and found him breathless and pale with excitement at the door. The snake, he said, was fully twenty feet long. It had pursued him a little way through the bushes and then disappeared in a hole in the bank. "Aha!" thought I, "this must be the great Natal python I have heard so much about but never seen." With some doubts, nevertheless, about his being twenty feet long—for people usually imagine snakes which scare them to be much bigger than they really are—I took my snake-hunting stick and set off at once to make the capture. On arriving at the pond, which was overhung by poplar trees and nearly dried up, the boy led me across a long stretch of hardened, sun-baked mud to a point in the great earthen dam about twenty feet over from the water's edge, where there was a hole, the mouth of which he had carefully stopped up with a good-sized stone before coming to tell me. This I removed, and as the snake was not there ready to bolt out as I expected, I ran in the stick to dislodge him. This, however, had no effect. So, taking a piece of stout paling wire, I made with it a hook to the end of my snake stick. Running in this arrangement, I managed to catch it in his folds, a proceeding which he resented by slipping it off and by many angry hissings which sounded all the louder from being uttered in the confinement of his subterranean retreat. After several failures he was at last hauled out. "A cobra, by Jove!" said I, as he raised himself up erect with expanded hood on the hard-mud expanse between me and the water. As his head when standing thus was fully eighteen inches high, it was no easy matter to press his neck to the ground so as to catch him safely with my hand. Without at all hurting him I made several attempts to get his neck down, and not without some nervousness, for he might at any moment send a charge of venom into my face. This playing him with the stick to get him into proper position so aroused and alarmed him that at last, overcome by his own excitement, he suddenly collapsed, falling over on his side and lying there motionless, half on his back, with his mouth fixedly open and stiff as if in death. His whole body was rigidly contorted and as unbending as a dried stick. "Ah, you've killed him!" shouted the boy from the top of the dam, whither he had retreated for safety. However, as I had seen this manifestation before, I knew that it was only a hysterical fit. Warning the lad not to approach, I picked up the apparently lifeless snake by the tail-tip and flung him off from me to a distance of five or six feet. As soon as he touched the ground all his life was active again. Up he stood instantly with expanded hood as before, the black eyes glistening angrily and the forked tongue running out quiveringly from the closed mouth as if daring me to approach. A slight touch with the stick on the neck caused him to fall down in a second fit similar to that from which he had just recovered. There he lay again, to all appearance dead, with every muscle rigid and his jaws fixed In a partial gape as if sudden dissolution had prevented their closing. Seeing in this an opportunity of giving the boy a lesson against the danger of meddling with seemingly dead cobras, I called him down to my side. "Do you think that snake is dead?" said I.

"Yes," he replied, "I believe he is surely dead now; you must have given him his death wound getting him out of the hole."

"Well, my boy, I'll show you whether he is dead or not; and from what you will see, take warning that a bite from an apparently dead cobra like this is a thousand times worse than if he were to strike you perchance in the usual way as you pass through the bush."

So saying, I put the end of the stick into the stiff, gaping jaws. Instantly they closed on it like a vise until the fangs were buried in the wood. Then, lifting him up till his tail swung clear of the ground, I bade the boy count the time by his watch, to see how long he would retain his bulldog-like grip. The body was gathered into unbending curves; but, as the minutes went by, these straightened out, commencing at the tail and advancing gradually upward to within three inches of the head. At last this too became limber, the jaws unloosened, and he dropped to the ground as the boy exclaimed: "Well, I'll be blamed! that bulldog snake held on for eight minutes and a half." As he lay now exhausted on the ground he put out his tongue at intervals, but never otherwise moved until I attempted to put the stick across his neck preparatory to taking him, when he stood up for fight as fresh as ever. However, I was nimble with the stick, and by its aid got my fingers round his throat just as he went into his third fit, and held his deadly jaws open again ready to close upon anything they should chance upon. Thus open-mouthed he remained as I carried him homeward, but recovered from his fit as he was placed in his cage.

The fears of the boy had quadrupled the animal's size, but still for a cobra he was large, being considerably over four feet in length. Having him now at home to practice on, I soon learned how to throw him into this state of temporary lockjaw, and instantly restore him again at pleasure. And besides this, I became certain that the ordinary wounds made by a cobra are nothing compared with his terrible bite when in this strange condition.

Among my collection I had at first six cobras. They used to eat frogs and toads, pursuing them around the room as a dog would a rat, seizing them by whatever part they could catch hold of, and swallowing them down whole and alive. After a time the family increased, for one Saturday night an old lady cobra surprised me by depositing on the dressing table a number of living young ones about as thick as a large cigarette and seven inches long. In these little snakelings the instinct of self-defense was born; for, before they were a minute old, they stood up erect, ready to strike like their parents. They were provided with poison, too, but could not expand their hoods till they were a week older.

Dear, pretty, little venomous babies!—infant criminals of the reptile kind—they had no more knowledge of nor affection for their mamma than if she were an old tree root or something else inanimate lying in their way and troublesome to be climbed over. Nor would the mother take the slightest notice of her interesting family. Indeed, some of them she never saw at all. Most probably she didn't know that they were any relations of hers, or she would have shown them some little attention.