Lifeform of the week: Egyptian cobras are slippery escape artists
Last Friday (March 25, 2011), a juvenile Egyptian cobra vanished from its off-exhibit enclosure in New York’s famous Bronx Zoo. After nearly a week of anxious searching, zoo officials announced today that they had apprehended the reptile. With the animal safely in custody, now is the perfect time to learn a bit about Naja haje, the snake that allegedly killed Cleopatra, and eventually got its own Twitter feed.
How big and scary is it?
Adult Egyptian cobras range in length from 5 to 8 feet, and are brown to almost black in color. Like all members of the genus Naja, Egyptian cobras have the intimidating ability to rear up and flatten their necks into the characteristic hood shape. The animals do this when threatened, probably to make themselves appear larger to potential predators. Without the hood they look like any other snake. Due to its age (it was just born a few months ago), the Bronx Zoo’s cobra is only about 24 inches long.
How dangerous is it?
As with all cobras, Naja haje is a venomous species. Its venom contains a neurotoxin that stops nerve signals from reaching muscles, including those involved in breathing. Respiratory failure and death can result from the snake’s bite. The good news is that Egyptian cobras are not among the ranks of “spitting cobras,” which can shoot venom out of their fangs like mace.
The death of Egyptian ruler Cleopatra is often attributed to suicide by snake bite, with the snake in question being the Egyptian cobra. This is likely more legend than fact, but it makes for good drama. Shakespeare employed the image in the final scene of Antony and Cleopatra.
Where did it go?
In the wild, Egyptian cobras are found in parts of Northern and Central Africa (including Egypt, of course) and the Arabian Peninsula. They require some water, so they tend to favor grasslands and savannahs over pure desert regions. After their own cobra went missing, Bronx Zoo officials did their best to reassure a nervous public that they were confident the animal was still somewhere within the reptile house, whose doors were locked shortly after the snake’s absence was noticed.
What does it eat?
Unlike pythons, Egyptian cobras do not prey on large mammals. While carnivorous, they tend to go for smaller organisms, like toads, lizards, and birds. In the Bronx Zoo, with all the tasty morsels stored away, the search for the snake centered on patiently watching and waiting for it to get hungry and venture out. In a written statement earlier this week, director Jim Breheny said:
Upon leaving its enclosure, the snake would feel vulnerable and seek out a place to hide and feel safe. When the snake gets hungry or thirsty, it will start to move around the building. Once that happens, it will be our best opportunity to recover it.
From hissing to tweeting
Not long after it disappeared, the cobra turned up in an unexpected venue – Twitter. The snake* posted its first tweet on March 28th, and within 24 hours it had over 35,000 followers.† Sporting a bio that read “I’m an Egyptian cobra out on the town,” the reptile regaled readers throughout the week with its imaginary antics around the Big Apple.
Is it safe to go back to the zoo?
Thursday afternoon, at a much-anticipated press conference, Breheny told reporters that the cobra had indeed been found earlier that day and was “in really good condition.” Where did they find it? Exactly where they said it would be, hiding in one of the many secluded corners of the locked-down reptile house. Once spotted, the snake was captured using tongs and a snake hook. And, no, the reptile house is not open yet. Keep in mind that they’ve probably been tearing that place apart for the last week looking for a snake. They’ll need to tidy up a bit first. In the meantime, you might consider checking out their nocturnal animal exhibit. Last time I was there they had a really cool porcupine.
* Just to be clear, you understand that the Twitter feed was created by a human and not by the actual escaped cobra, right? Okay, just checking.
† Last time I looked, it was at almost 200,000. Take that, Kanye West!