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What Spitting Cobras are Aiming For

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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. 

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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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Big Questions
Why Do Dogs Love to Dig?
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Dog owners with green thumbs beware: It's likely just a matter of time before Fido turns your azalea bed into a graveyard of forgotten chew toys. When dogs aren't digging up your prized garden, they can be found digging elsewhere in your yard, at the beach, and even between your couch cushions at home. But what exactly is behind your dog's drive to turn every soft surface he or she sees into an excavation site?

According to Dr. Emma Grigg, an animal behaviorist and co-author of The Science Behind a Happy Dog, this behavior is completely normal. "When people say 'why do dogs dig,' the first thing that always comes to mind is 'well, because they're dogs,'" she tells Mental Floss. The instinct first appeared in dogs' wolf ancestors, then it was amplified in certain breeds through artificial selection. That's why dogs that were bred to hunt rodents, like beagles and terriers, are especially compelled to dig in places where such animals might make their homes.

But this tendency isn't limited to just a few specific breeds. No matter their original roles, dogs of all breeds have been known to kick up some dirt on occasion. Beyond predatory urges, Dr. Grigg says there are two main reasons a dog may want to dig. The first is to cool off on a hot day. When stuck on an open lawn with little to no shade, unearthing a fresh layer of dirt untouched by the sun is a quick way to beat the heat.

The second reason is to stash away goodies. Imagine your dog gets bored with chewing his favorite bone but knows he wants to come back for it later. Instead of leaving it out in the open where anyone can snatch it up, he decides to bury it in a secret place where only he'll be able to find it. Whether or not he'll actually go back for it is a different story. "There's a disconnect with modern dogs: They know the burying part but they don't always know to dig it up," Dr. Grigg says.

Because digging is part of a dog's DNA, punishing your pet for doing so isn't super effective. But that doesn't mean you should stand idly by as your yard gets turned inside-out. When faced with this behavior in your own dog, one option is to redirect it. This can mean allowing him to dig in a designated corner of the yard while keeping other parts off-limits, or setting up a raised flowerbed or sandbox especially to satisfy that urge. "You can get him interested in the area by burying a couple bones or some interesting things in there for him to dig," Dr. Grigg says. "I like the idea of buried treasure."

If your dog's motive for digging is more destructive than practical, he may have an energy problem. Dogs require a certain amount of stimulation each day, and when their humans don't provide it for them they find their own ways to occupy themselves. Sometimes it's by chewing up shoes, toppling trash cans, or digging ditches the perfect size for twisting ankles. Fortunately, this is nothing more walks and playtime can't improve.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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