Spitting cobras are famous for their terrifying defense mechanism: They spit venom directly into an attacker’s eyes, causing severe pain and possibly blindness. Now, scientists have learned that the name “spitting cobra” is a misnomer, since the snake doesn’t actually spit out its venom. Instead, it sprays the poison in geometric patterns such as paired ovals, similar to the way a pitcher winds up to throw a ball.
And how did this astonishing fact come to light? Biologist Bruce Young at the University of Massachusetts Lowell examined the spitting habits of three captive species of cobra…by provoking them to spit venom in his face.
No, he’s not crazy—he wore a visor fitted with an accelerometer, so a computer could trace his eye and head movements in 3D while he taunted the angry reptiles. Young also tracked the snakes’ movements, using high-speed videography to quantify the sway of their heads and electromyography (EMG) to measure the contraction of their head and neck muscles.
“They wiggle their heads when they spit, like bobble head dolls do,” Young told DISCOVER. He found that the snakes move their heads so that when they shoot venom from their fangs, it comes out in an elaborate pattern. Otherwise, the stream of venom would be as predictable as water coming out of a water hose, he explains. The snakes even wobbled their heads in response to Young’s head movements.
“This is the first evidence of sensory feedback in snakes,” he says.
So far, Young has been extremely lucky: The snakes have only sprayed venom at his skin and face, and not into his eyes. But still, it’s quite a sacrifice to make in the name of science.
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Image: Courtesy of Guido Westhoff