Larry Slawson received his master's degree from UNC Charlotte. He has a keen interest in biology and microbiology.
Throughout the world, there exist only a handful of snakes capable of inflicting serious harm (or death) to human beings. One of these snakes is the deadly Egyptian cobra. Endemic to northern and western Africa, the Egyptian cobra is a shy but extremely aggressive species that is renowned for its distinct coloration, potent venom, and peculiar behavior. It is also one of the most dangerous species in Africa, inflicting a number of deadly bites on unsuspecting humans each year.
This work examines the Egyptian cobra and provides an in-depth analysis of the snake’s general traits and characteristics, including a discussion of its behavioral patterns, reproductive cycle, habitat, prey, and natural predators. It is this author’s hope that readers will come out of this article a better, more-developed understanding (and appreciation) of this fascinating snake.
"The snake will always bite back."
— Jake Roberts
- Common Name: Egyptian cobra
- Binomial Name: Naja haje
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Reptilia
- Order: Squamata
- Suborder: Serpentes
- Family: Elapidae
- Genus: Naja
- Species: N. haje
- Synonyms: Coluber haje (Linnaeus, 1758); Vipera haje (Daudin, 1803); Naja haje (Merrem, 1820)
- Also Known As: N/A
- Average Lifespan: Unknown
- Conservation Status: Unknown (insufficient data)
Coloration and Appearance
The Egyptian cobra is a large species of snake known for its large and depressed head, cervical ribs, and broad snout. Egyptian cobras possess relatively large and rounded pupils, along with a long body that is cylindrical in shape. Tails on this species are also quite long and are proportionate to the animal’s overall body length.
The coloration of the Egyptian cobra can vary significantly between each specimen. Nevertheless, most members of this species are either brown or black in appearance, with light or dark mottling and “teardrops” beneath the eyes. Some Egyptian cobras even take on a “copper” appearance or greyish-brown coloration depending on their habitat and locale. This helps to conceal the snake from natural predators in the wild. Underbellies, in contrast, are almost always a cream-white, yellowish-brown, or bluish-grey.
The Egyptian cobra possesses 19 to 20 dorsal scales at midbody, along with 191 to 220 ventral scales. Anal plates are singular, whereas the subcaudal scales are paired and number between 53 to 65 scales in total. The snake also possesses one preocular scale, three postoculars, two (rarely three) subocular scales, along with seven upper labials. Lower labials, in turn, usually number in the vicinity of seven to eight scales.
The Egyptian cobra is both a nocturnal and crepuscular species, which means that it is most active at night and/or during the twilight hours. This allows the snake to avoid the extreme heat of daytime in Egypt’s dry terrain. The Egyptian cobra is also considered terrestrial, spending most of its time in abandoned burrows, outcroppings, and former termite mounds. Unlike many snakes, however, the Egyptian cobra rarely wanders from place to place and is known to establish semi-permanent homes, which it returns to daily. Only a handful of snakes (such as the inland taipan) are known to possess this remarkable characteristic.
Threat to Humans
Due to its highly potent venom, the Egyptian cobra is considered extremely dangerous to humans. And while this species tends to avoid human contact whenever possible (due to its relatively shy nature), encounters with the snake have become relatively common in recent years due to the rapid expansion of human settlements within its territory.
Urbanization and rapid population growth in this sector of the globe are extremely troubling to conservationists and scientists alike. Experts fear that greater contact with the snake will not only lead to additional snakebite incidents but also a sharp decline in the Egyptian cobra’s population it becomes the target of unnecessary (and unprovoked) human attacks.
As with most cobra species, the Egyptian cobra possesses a natural instinct to “flee” when humans are spotted. As such, unprovoked attacks are extremely rare for this species, as the snake tends to value self-preservation over unnecessary encounters. If threatened, however, the Egyptian cobra will actively defend itself against would-be aggressors.
Before striking, it is common for the snake to expand its hood and raise itself to an upright position. Most experts agree that this technique is employed by the Egyptian cobra for the purpose of making itself appear larger than it actually is. For many predators, this intimidating display is enough to prevent most attacks from being carried out.
When basic defense mechanisms fail, however, the Egyptian cobra will actively strike. This usually occurs when the snake is cornered or when it feels that death is imminent. These bites are usually fatal to the aggressor, as the Egyptian cobra possesses an extremely potent venom that is lethal even in small doses. In encounters that involve the mongooses though, multiple strikes are sometimes needed to produce a fatal effect.
To date, experts agree that simple avoidance of the snake will go a long way in preventing unnecessary snakebites. To accomplish this, individuals within the Egyptian cobra’s habitat should always be mindful of their surroundings and only observe this species from a distance. Failure to do so can easily result in serious injury or death.
Habitat and Distribution
The Egyptian cobra is found predominantly in northern Africa outside of the Sahara. However, this species is also known to inhabit western Africa’s savannas, the southern Congo basin, as well as territories inside eastern Kenya and Tanzania. Generally speaking, the Egyptian cobra tends to prefer semi-dry conditions where vegetation is sparse and water sources can be accessed with relative ease (such as a river or pond).
In these areas, the Egyptian cobra is known to take up residence in a permanent lair during the day before emerging and seeking food during the night hours. This prevents the animal from being exposed to the extreme heat of northern Africa while also keeping them relatively safe from predation in the wild.
In more recent years, the Egyptian cobra has become extremely common in agricultural fields due to the expansion of human settlements. They also display a strong affinity for water and have even been spotted swimming in the Mediterranean on occasion.
Around these areas, rats, mice, and domesticated chickens are also common, prompting the snake to cross paths with humans on a regular basis. This is problematic, as numerous cases have been reported of the Egyptian cobra entering homes in search of food. As a result, deaths of both snakes and humans are relatively common, resulting in a decline in the animal’s population in recent decades.
Prey and Natural Predators
While the Egyptian cobra has a reputation as a dangerous and formidable predator, it is not quite an apex predator (an animal at the top of the food chain with no natural predators).
The Egyptian cobra is classified as a “carnivorous reptile,” as they prey on a variety of smaller mammals, reptiles, and amphibians in the wild. A particular favorite of this species is the toad. This animal is common in northern Africa, particularly around rivers and small ponds where the snake is most commonly found. Monitor lizards are also a favorite of this species and are consumed on a regular basis due to their abundance in this region.
As an opportunistic feeder, however, the Egyptian cobra is also known to consume small rodents, eggs, birds, and other snakes when the occasion arises. Both the Mozambique spitting cobra and puff adder are common victims of the Egyptian cobra, as their smaller sizes make them ideal (and tasty) targets.
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This species is also known to practice cannibalism (i.e., eating other snakes of its own kind) in times of hunger. It remains unclear whether this practice is common for the Egyptian cobra, as it has only been observed in a few instances. To date, it is believed by most snake experts that this practice is relatively rare.
As a large and highly-venomous species of snake, the Egyptian cobra faces few natural predators in the wild. Nevertheless, a number of animals exist in northern Africa capable of inflicting serious harm or death on this particular snake. This includes larger birds, as well as the agile mongoose.
Mongooses, in particular, are an opponent highly capable of taking down even the largest of cobras. With thick fur that guards against the cobra’s fangs and venom, the mongoose can rapidly engage an Egyptian cobra, pouncing on its back before the snake can defend itself. Once pinned to the ground, a few simple bites to the throat are all that is needed to incapacitate the cobra, as their skin offers little protection against the mongoose’s powerful jaws.
As an additional defense mechanism against superior foes (such as the mongoose), it should be noted that the Egyptian cobra has been known to “fake” its own death by rapidly convulsing on the ground. Occasionally this technique is effective and helps to ward off would-be predators before they can make an easy meal of the snake. Nevertheless, it is rarely incorporated by the animal and is considered by experts to be a last-resort option when death is imminent.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
The Egyptian cobra is considered an oviparous species, which means that females give birth to eggs (rather than live younglings). Very little is currently known about the snake’s reproductive traits. However, it is believed by most scientists that mating season tends to begin at the end of winter and last until the beginning of summer.
Gestational periods tend to last approximately 90 to 100 days before the female finally lays a clutch of 8 to 33 eggs. Incubation, in turn, tends to range from 48 to 70 days (depending on outside temperatures). Eggs typically hatch in either April or May, with hatchlings emerging at a total length of 8 to 11.5 inches (20 to 30 centimeters). Although babies are extremely vulnerable to predation at this stage of development, the hatchlings still possess powerful venom that allows them to actively defend themselves from attack. As such, many from this species reach adulthood with relative ease.
Venom from the Egyptian cobra is comprised (primarily) of both neurotoxins and cytotoxins. On average, venom yield is approximately 175 to 300 milligrams per bite, with a murine subcutaneous value of approximately 1.15 milligrams per kilogram (toxinology.com). Combined, the neurotoxins and cytotoxins produced by this species are extremely detrimental to a victim’s central nervous system and cells. Without treatment, a single bite is considered to be a life-threatening event as individuals rarely survive without appropriate antivenom.
Bite Symptoms and Treatment
Following envenomation, the Egyptian cobra’s potent venom begins to immediately attack the body’s nervous system, resulting in the disruption of nerve signals to important muscle groups and organs. This includes both the heart and lungs of an individual (or animal). As the venom continues to spread throughout the bloodstream, common symptoms include localized pain, swelling, bruising, and necrosis of the skin. Other (more general) symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, extreme abdominal pain, dizziness, and convulsions. Blistering is also common, along with migraine headaches, and paralysis of the extremities (such as the feet and hands). As the venom reaches its peak strength within the body, paralysis of the respiratory system is common, leading to complete respiratory failure and suffocation (the main cause of death with Egyptian cobra bites).
As mentioned above, bites from an Egyptian cobra are life-threatening events that require immediate treatment to prevent death. To situate the danger posed by this species, it is estimated that a single bite is capable of killing an elephant within 3 hours. For humans, this time frame is far shorter, necessitating the need for rapid administration of cobra-specific antivenom. This is generally followed by palliative care which aims to alleviate a victim’s pain as much as possible, and includes bedrest, pain relieving medication, as well as intravenous fluids to maintain hydration levels.
In spite of antivenom being relatively common within this region’s hospital systems, fatality rates continue to remain high as few individuals are able to reach medical facilities in a timely manner (toxinology.com). Moreover, it should be noted that many individuals who are able to be hospitalized die from these bites due to the venom’s devastating effect on both the heart and lungs. For individuals lucky enough to survive, long-term complications are common, and include muscle pain, paralysis, as well as long-term organ damage.
As of 2021, the conservation status of the Egyptian cobra is currently unknown (due to insufficient research and data). However, due to recent encroachments by humans into Egyptian cobra territory, it is believed that the animal’s population numbers could possibly be in decline. This is further complicated by the fact that this species tends to be drawn to human settlements where food (such as mice) are extremely common. With greater contact between the snake and humans, deaths are common for the snake as they become the target of unprovoked attacks (often being killed on sight).
To date, no specific laws have been enacted to protect the Egyptian cobra from attack. However, conservation laws may become necessary in the near future to protect this fascinating animal from the threat of extinction if recent trends continue.
While much is known about the Egyptian cobra and its behavioral patterns, there is still a lot to be learned about this extraordinary creature. From its reproductive habits to unique behavioral patterns, the Egyptian cobra is a remarkable animal worthy of our admiration and respect. As more and more research is conducted by scientists, it will be interesting to see what new information can be learned about this one of a kind animal in the years and decades that lie ahead.
- Slawson, Larry. “The Top 10 Deadliest and Most Dangerous Snakes in the World.” Owlcation. 2019.
- Slawson, Larry. “The 25 Deadliest Snakes Ranked.” Owlcation. 2020.
- University of Adelaide. Toxinology.com. 2020.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Larry Slawson
MG Singh emge from Singapore on January 29, 2021:
Very interesting article. I am fond of cobras because India is the home of the cobra and the king cobra is the deadliest snakes. There have been cases of king cobras guarding temples and treasure.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on January 29, 2021:
A very interesting article, Larry. It is fortunate that the Egyptian cobra is not a more aggressive snake otherwise there would be many more fatalities.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on January 28, 2021:
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on January 28, 2021:
Snakes are man's enemies. I don't see them providing benefits.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 28, 2021:
The cobra is probably one of the more talked about snakes, Larry. This is a very interesting article, and even though they are so dangerous I wouldn't want them to become extinct.