What Spitting Cobras are Aiming For

iStock / Vadimborkin
iStock / Vadimborkin

Make most cobras angry, and they’ll bite you and inject the bite with a dose of venom. Frighten or tick off a spitting cobra, though, and it will contract the muscles around its venom glands and “spit” it out through holes in the tips of its fangs. Right into your face. 

Spitting cobras are no slouches when it comes to marksmanship. Neurobiologist Bruce Young found this out when he put on a plastic face mask a few years ago and taunted cobras into taking more than a hundred shots at him. When he analyzed the snakes’ movements, he found that they always spit right after he made a jerky movement with his head. The snakes would turn their heads in the same direction that he’d started to move his and then start spitting. Tracking the target like this, Young wrote in his study, “gives cobras a distinct geometric advantage; even relatively large linear movements on the part of the target can be accommodated by rather modest angular movements of the cobra's head.” A burst of speed when turning their heads also lets the snakes “lead” the target a little and compensate for the time it takes for their muscles to send the venom flying. 

It’s a cool tactic, but not as easy as just biting whatever it is that needs biting. You see, spitting cobra’s venom doesn’t do anything if it just hits you on the skin or even gets in your mouth. To be of any use, the venom has to get in your eye, where it causes searing pain and can scar the corneas and leave you blind.

This has had many biologists wondering if the cobras know to shoot for the eyes and are aiming at them. Given the snakes’ accuracy when spitting and the limited targets that their venom is effective on, scientists, zookeepers and others who study and work with spitting cobras assumed they were. In 2005, researchers from the University of Bonn in Germany backed these assumptions up with an experiment. They put undergrad student Katja Tzschätzsch face-to-face with 10 different cobras and got them to spit at her hands, her face and life-sized photos of faces. Hands and still faces and photos didn’t get a rise out of the snakes, but a moving face (real and fake) did—less so when the eyes were digitally removed from the photos than when they were left intact. When the researchers looked at the traces of venom on the photos and Tzschätzsch’s facemask, they found that the different cobras hit the eyes anywhere from 80 percent to 100 percent of the time.

Now a newer study suggests that maybe the cobras aren’t so picky when choosing their targets. Guido Westhoff, a neurobiologist who worked with Young and Tzschätzsch on the previous research, revisited the question last year with another round of experiments. He and his team presented cobras with life-size, human face-shaped boards with and without different kinds of glass eyes, as well as larger and smaller fake faces and triangular boards that didn’t resemble faces. 

In 324 spitting tests, the snakes didn’t spit at the boards with eyes any more than the ones without. Also, when the eyes on the targets were moved closer together or farther apart, the snakes didn’t adjust their aim to account for the distance between them. Given a choice between a face with eyes and an eyeless one, the snakes spit at the larger target most of the time, whether it had eyes or not. 

Westhoff now thinks that cobras don’t specifically aim for the eyes, but for the center of whatever body part their tormenter puts closest to them. Often, this just happens to be the face—and it seems the snakes prefer more face-like round targets than pointy ones; they spit at those almost four times as much—and at least one eye gets hit by chance. 

What’s more, he thinks that aiming for the eyes is both unnecessary and even a bad strategy for the snakes. Cobras can spray their venom over a wider area by moving their head as they spit and spitting several times in a row, increasing their chances of hitting the eye and without requiring them to aim right at them. Shooting for eyes instead of just a face also puts a cobra at a disadvantage if it can’t clearly see or recognize eyes, like when their own eyes become cloudy while they shed their skins, or in the dark. 

11 Lesser-Known Animal Phobias

iStock.com/Scacciamosche
iStock.com/Scacciamosche

He’s dealt with elaborate booby traps, KGB agents, and a face-melting artifact, but to Indiana Jones, nothing’s more unsettling than snakes. Many people can relate. Ophidiophobia—or “the persistent and irrational fear of snakes”—affects roughly 1 to 5 percent of the global population. So does the clinical fear of spiders, also known as arachnophobia. But did you know that some people feel just as uncomfortable around chickens? From puppy-induced panic to equine terror, here are 11 lesser-known animal phobias.

1. Lepidopterophobia

Academy Award-winner Nicole Kidman is unfazed by spiders or snakes, but she can’t escape her lepidopterophobia, or fear of butterflies. As a young girl, the Australian actress once scaled a fence just so she could avoid a butterfly perched nearby. “I jump out of planes, I could be covered in cockroaches, I do all sorts of things,” Kidman once said, “but I just don’t like the feel of butterflies’ bodies.” (The Independent reported that she tried to break her phobia by spending time in a museum butterfly cage. “It didn’t work,” the actress said.) Kidman and her fellow lepidopterophobes may refuse to leave windows open in the summertime, lest a stray monarch come fluttering into their home.

2. Batrachophobia

A giant river toad
iStock.com/reptiles4all

No, frogs can’t give you warts. That urban legend—and others like it—may explain some cases of batrachophobia, a deep-seated fear of amphibians, including frogs, toads, and salamanders. It’s thought that the condition might also be linked to an overarching disdain for slimy things. By the way, if you specifically don’t like toads, then you could have a case of what’s known as bufonophobia.

3. Entomophobia

Entomophobia is a family of fears related to insects that includes lepidopterophobia, the previously mentioned butterfly-related dread. Another phobia within this group is isopterophobia, the fear of wood-eating insects like termites. Then we have myrmecophobia (the fear of ants) and apiphobia (the fear of bees or bee stings). Of course we can’t leave out katsaridaphobia, or the debilitating fear of cockroaches. “Cockroaches tap into this sort of evolutionary aversion we have to greasy, smelly, slimy things,” Jeff Lockwood, an author and professor of natural sciences at the University of Wyoming, told the BBC. “Plus, they’re defiant little bastards.”

Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí was terrified of grasshoppers. “I am 37 years old,” he wrote in 1941, “and the fright which grasshoppers cause me has not diminished since adolescence ... If possible, I would say it has become greater.” He went on to say that if a grasshopper ever landed on him while he was standing “on the edge of a precipice,” he’d instinctively jump to his death.

4. Ornithophobia

Traumatic childhood experiences involving birds—like, say, getting chased by a goose—can give birth to a lifelong fear of feathered critters. For Lucille Ball, they always reminded her of her father's untimely death when she was just a toddler: As her mother was delivering the horrible news, a couple of sparrows gathered by the kitchen windowsill.

“I’ve been superstitious about birds ever since,” Ball wrote in her autobiography. “I don’t have a thing about live birds, but pictures of birds get me. I won’t buy anything with a print of a bird, and I won’t stay in a hotel room with bird pictures or any bird wallpaper.”

5. Ailurophobia

Tabby cat against a gray background
iStock.com/Sergeeva

Lucy van Pelt (sort of) mentions ailurophobia in A Charlie Brown Christmas, although she bungles the nomenclature and tells Charlie Brown, "If you’re afraid of cats, you have ailurophasia." (The -phasia suffix generally refers to speech disorders, such as aphasia.) That being said, the fear of cats is a phenomenon that goes by many names, including gatophobia and felinophobia.

Rumor has it that Napoleon Bonaparte and lots of other famous conquerors were terrified of kitties. In Bonaparte’s case, the allegations are probably false; according to historian Katharine MacDonogh, “No record exists of Napoleon either liking or hating cats.” She thinks this myth reflects the long-standing cultural belief that our feline friends wield supernatural insights. “Cats have been endowed with a magical ability to detect the overweening ambitions of dictators, many of whom have consequently been accused of ailurophobia on the flimsiest evidence,” MacDonogh wrote in her book Reigning Cats And Dogs: A History of Pets At Court Since The Renaissance.

6. Alektorophobia

Chickens, hens, and roosters put alektorophobes on edge. A rare type of ornithophobia, this fowl-based fear is no laughing matter. One 2018 case study reported on a 32-year-old man who would experience heart palpitations, a sudden dryness of the mouth, and uncomfortable feelings in his chest upon seeing a neighbor’s hen. It was ultimately determined that the man's phobia was the result of a frightening childhood encounter he’d had with a rooster.

7. Ostraconophobia

“I have a lobster phobia, I don’t know why. I just don’t like them,” NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin told the press in 2017. “I cannot eat dinner if someone beside me is eating lobster.” The admission came just after Hamlin had won the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Why did that matter? Because the event took place at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where race-winners are customarily rewarded with giant, live lobsters. But when somebody approached Hamlin with a 44-pounder, he tried to flee the stage. Ostraconophobia, or fear of shellfish, can also manifest itself as a fear of crabs or oysters. The majority of people who deal with this phobia develop it after getting sick from the shellfish that makes them feel uneasy.

8. Ichthyophobia

Piranha fish on black background
iStock.com/bluepeter

Ichthyophobia is a bit of an umbrella term that covers an irrational disdain of fish in a variety of situations. It can refer to the fear of being around live fish, the fear of eating dead ones, or the fear of touching them. A common version of that first anxiety is galeophobia, the widespread fear of sharks. And then there are those who are disturbed (and sometimes even physically sickened) by the sight or smell of fishy entrees; these ichthyophobes may take pains to avoid supermarkets with large seafood aisles.

9. Musophobia

Among the British adults who participated in a 2017 phobia survey, more than 25 percent reported that they were afraid of mice. By comparison, only 24 percent said they dreaded sharp needles or airplanes. In addition to disliking mice, musophobes are often afraid of other rodents, such as hamsters and rats.

10. Equinophobia

Sigmund Freud once wrote a case study on a boy who was terrified of horses. At age 4, Herbert Graf—referred to as “Little Hans” in the paper—had seen an overloaded work horse crumble to the ground in a heap. Following the traumatic incident, Hans became easily spooked while in the presence of horses; just the sound of clopping hooves was enough to trigger his anxiety. As a result, Hans often refused to leave the house.

Little Hans eventually overcame his fears, but equinophobia is still with us today. Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry developed it after being bitten by a pony at a petting zoo when he was a child. Unfortunately for Berry, one of the Chiefs’s mascots is a live pinto horse named Warpaint. As former teammate Derrick Johnson told NFL Films, “He’s always watching for the horse, making sure the horse doesn’t look at him or do something crazy.” Berry has taken steps to overcome his horse phobia, though; in fact, he has even worked up the courage to (briefly) pet Warpaint.

11. Cynophobia

Pug wrapped in a pink blanket
iStock.com/Alexandr Zhenzhirov

If you’re afraid of snakes, at least you’ll (probably) never have to worry about some coworker bringing his pet anaconda into the office. Cynophobes aren’t so lucky. Defined as the “fear of dogs,” cynophobia is an especially challenging animal phobia to have because, well, puppers are everywhere. Cynophobic people may go out of their way to avoid parks and tend to feel uncomfortable in neighborhoods where loud pooches reside.

As with ornithophobia, the fear of canines often stems from a traumatic childhood event. Therapists have found that, for many patients, the best way to overcome this aversion is through controlled exposure; spending quality time with a well-trained dog under a supervisor’s watchful eye can work wonders.

Survey: People Show More Affection to Their Dogs Than Their Humans

iStock.com/damircudic
iStock.com/damircudic

Valentine's Day is marketed as a celebration of love between two people, but for some human beings, the relationship they share with their dog takes precedent. Nearly half of pet owners have plans to celebrate the holiday with their pet, whether they're buying them a gift or making them a treat from scratch. That's one of the findings from a new report from Rover that shows just how much humans love their dogs—and how much dogs feel love from their humans.

After surveying 1450 U.S. adults who are dating or in a relationship, Rover found that many of them prioritize spending time with their canine companions. Sixty-seven percent reported gazing lovingly into their pet's eyes, and about 33 percent do this more often with their cute dog than with their human significant other.

The way our pets respond to this behavior suggests that dogs feel love, too. Phil Tedeschi, a University of Denver researcher and member of Rover’s Dog People Panel, says that dogs will wait for the opportunity to make eye contact with their humans. Previous research has shown that some dogs also express empathy when they think their owners are in distress.

When dog people aren't gazing at their pooches, they're finding other ways to show their affection. Nearly a quarter of dog owners take more pictures with their dog than with the humans in their life; a quarter spend more money on their dog than on their partner; and nearly half cuddle with their dog more often than they do with the person they're dating.

Pet parents also aren't afraid to cut people out of their life if they threaten their relationship with their dog. Forty-one percent say it's important that their dog gets along with their potential partners, and 53 percent would consider breaking up with someone who didn't like dogs or who was severely allergic to them.

You can check out the results of the report in the infographic below. And if you're looking for a last minute gift for Fido this Valentine's Day, here are some suggestions.

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