You might’ve heard the expression “dog eat dog,” metaphorically, of course; but how about the one that goes: cobra eat cobra? If not, then you’re not alone; citing a study published this week in the journal Ecology, cobra cannibalism could be more frequent than initially thought.
Researchers with the University of the Western Cape allegedly happened upon a particular instance in the Kalahari Desert in which a larger cape cobra (Naja nivea) was devouring a smaller specimen of the same species. Puzzled by what they had witnessed, the researchers hit the books and analyzed a slew of scientific papers concerning cobras.
Image Credit: Bryan Maritz
"This work highlights a renewed effort to meaningfully quantify several aspects of snake natural history, especially in poorly studied regions such as Africa," explained study lead author Bryan Maritz. "An improved understanding of snake ecology and feeding, in general, will help to highlight the ecological functional roles that snakes are performing in African ecosystems."
While snake experts have long known that cobras sometimes feast on snakes of different species in the wilderness, there hasn’t been much exposure to the idea of cobras indulging in conspecific consumption; most observations were written off as one-off occurrences. Given the circumstances, the researchers were pleasantly surprised to learn from their studies that cobras eating other cobras is typical behavior among the serpents.
Out of the 30+ known cobra species that slither among us on Earth, the study encompassed six of those. The researchers found that other types of snakes consisted of anywhere between 13% and 43% of the six cobras’ diets and that at least five of the six cobra species partook in conspecific cannibalism.
Captivatingly, male cobras were the only ones that participated in this behavior, not females. The findings suggest that there could be a gender-specific component involved, perhaps one of combative or territorial significance.
While the research confirms that conspecific cannibalism is more common among specific cobra species than initially thought, it doesn’t quite explain why. Additional research could help hone our understanding of cobras and why they partake in cannibalistic behavior.