A viral photo, most likely from Southeast Asia, shows a rarely seen encounter.
Recently, a lethal battle between two scaly titans ended in a draw, leaving behind a twisted, grisly scene.
One of the combatants, a king cobra, lay strangled. The second, a reticulated python, was also dead. Bitten behind its head by the cobra and suffering from the hooded snake’s deadly venom, the python attempted to defend its life by squeezing its attacker to death. It succeeded.
But neither survived.
“It’s crazy, but it’s something I could easily see happening…it’s a dangerous world out there, to eat other big snakes and things that could kill you,” says Coleman Sheehy of the Florida Museum of Natural History, who says the deadly clash likely occurred somewhere in Southeast Asia, where the two snake species overlap.
Both snakes are superlative among their slithering kin, and as these things sometimes do, a photo of the corpses ended up being posted on Facebook. There, it quickly attracted the attention of herpetologists and others marveling at the unusual sight (we’re all familiar with the ouroboros, a symbol depicting a serpent eating its own tail, but who’s ever seen a dead python balled up around a dead cobra?).
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“It looks real, it doesn’t look photoshopped or anything,” says Frank Burbrink of the American Museum of Natural History. “This is a weird encounter, but a lot of stuff that happens with snakes is never easily seen.”
That’s true even when two large species of snake are involved.
King cobras are the longest venomous snakes in the world, with some spanning 18 feet. And, as their genus name Ophiophagus suggests, king cobras specialize in eating other snakes. When these cobras attack, they target the base of their victims’ heads, then kill by injecting a venomous cocktail that quickly shuts down nervous systems and paralyzes their prey.
“They can pretty much tackle most snakes they come across,” Sheehy says.
Reticulated pythons, on the other hand, are the longest snakes in the world, with some being more than 30 feet long. They use their muscles to strangle meals, which normally comprise mammals—not other snakes.
“If there was a predatory event here, it was king cobra to python,” Burbrink says. “And it didn’t work out for either of them.” (World’s longest snake has virgin birth.)
An Amur leopard named Usi from Nebraska’s Omaha Zoo is captured in mid-prowl in this picture by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore.
It’s not clear how often these types of apex snake clashes happen in the wild. And Burbrink isn’t necessarily sure that this fight to the death resulted from a natural encounter.
“We know cobras will eat other snakes, but you never know if people are doing goofy stuff to set things up,” Burbrink says. “People keep king cobras, and—hey let’s see what happens when you put these guys in a little ditch. You can see there’s a berm on both sides [in the photo] and they might’ve gone at it, but it could have happened in the wild as well. I wish I were there to have seen it.”
But no matter the trigger, it seems the sequence of events is clear in this case. The king cobra attempted to bite a bit more than it could swallow, given the enormous size of the adult python, and the python, in turn, did exactly what pythons do: It coiled up around and strangled its attacker.
Unfortunately, in the end, the python’s power was no match for the cobra’s venom.
“It would kill the python pretty quickly,” Sheehy says. “Probably within 30 minutes, they could both be dead.”