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The Asiatic Cobra Systematics Page

Naja naja - Spectacled cobra, specimen from Sri Lanka

Asiatic cobras have traditionally been among the venomous snakes whose taxonomy caused the most headaches to herpetological systematists and hobbyists alike. Recent work has shed considerable light on the systematics of this group, but also resulted in considerable changes in nomenclature. Far from there being only a single species of Asiatic cobra (Naja naja), as was widely believed until the 1980s, eleven species are now recognized, with the potential of more to be discovered. The aim of this page is to provide a brief guide to the different species, their systematics and their identification, as well as to answer some of the more commonly asked questions about these animals.

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Species of Asiatic Naja

Naja naja - Indian Spectacled Cobra

Also known as: Black Pakistan cobra, Sri Lankan cobra; Naja naja karachiensis, Naja naja polyocellata.

Identification. Pattern: very variable; hood mark spectacle-shaped, not linked to light throat area on sides, often absent, especially in adults and in north and north-west of range; dorsal ground colour variable, grey, yellowish, tan, brown, reddish or black; dorsum may be uniform, or with ragged cross-bands; throat and venter usually with one or several dark bands; at throat level, generally a spot on the outer edges of the ventrals and the lower one or two dorsal scale rows on each side; throat pattern often ill-defined.
Scalation: 171-197 ventrals, 50-67 subcaudals, all divided; dorsal scale row counts very variable; except in north-west, very high dorsal scale row counts (23-25 just ahead of mid-body, 29-37 around the hood); north-western specimens have 23-27 scale rows around the hood and 19-21 ahead of mid-body.

Size. Average 100-150 cm, occasionally 200 cm or more.

Distribution. India (except Assam), Pakistan (except most of Baluchistan), Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal.

Taxonomic comment. No subspecies are currently recognized. Although there are considerable differences between northwestern and other populations, the transition between them in scale counts and other characters is extremely gradual. Recognizing subspecies such as N. n. karachiensis or N. n. polyocellata would thus represent breaking a cline. However, more detailed sampling or the use of molecular methods may change this interpretation. Specimens without hood mark from northwestern India or Pakistan are often confused with Naja oxiana. This applies especially to the black cobras from southern Pakistan - N. oxiana does not occur in southern Pakistan, nor in most of western India (except northern hill areas), and is never black.
All Asiatic Naja were formerly regarded as part of Naja naja, hence the name is applied to other Asiatic cobra species in much of the older literature.

Naja atra - Chinese Cobra

Also known as: Formosa Island cobra.

Identification. Pattern: dorsal colour brown, grey or black; often light, chevron-shaped bands across dorsum, which are frequently split into double or quadruple bands; hood mark shape variable: spectacle, mask, horseshoe or O- shape, often linked to light throat area on at least one side; clearly defined light throat area, usually a pair of clearly defined lateral spots.
Scalation: 23-29 scale rows around hood (usually 25-27), 19-21 just ahead of mid-body; 161-180 ventrals, 37-51 subcaudals; often only two posterior temporals.

Size. 90-120 cm, sometimes over 150 cm.

Distribution. Northern Laos, northern Vietnam, China (north-east to the mouth of the Yangtze River), Taiwan, Hainan. .

Taxonomic comment. Easily confused with Naja kaouthia. Most easily distinguished by virtue of having lower ventral and subcaudal scale counts, particular when sex is taken into account.

Naja kaouthia - Monocellate Cobra, Monocled Cobra

Also known as: Suphan cobra, Naja kaouthia suphanensis.

Identification. Pattern: variable; hood mark O- or mask-shaped, may be faint, but absent only in few populations; dorsal colour yellow, brown, grey or blackish; plain or with ragged or clearly-defined cross-bands; throat pattern usually clear; one pair of lateral throat spots, encroach only on lowest dorsal scale row. Ventral colour usually similar to dorsal colour, may be light. Underside of tail light, subcaudals usually dark-edged.
Scalation: 27-33 scale rows around hood, 21 just ahead of mid-body; 170-197 ventrals, 46-61 subcaudals, normally all divided; often more than one cuneate on each side; frontal scale short, often almost square.

Size. 100-150 cm, occasionally up to 230 cm.

Distribution. Northern India (east of Delhi), Assam, Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, northern Malaya, Cambodia, southern half of Vietnam, probably southern Laos, China (Yunnan, Sichuan).

Taxonomic comment. The "Suphan cobra" ("N. k. suphanensis") is a colour variety of N. kaouthia known from Central Thailand. All intermediates between "typical" Suphan cobras and "typical" N. kaouthia are known, and a molecular genetic study showed no differences bewteen these colour forms.

Naja mandalayensis - Burmese Spitting Cobra

Identification. Pattern: medium to dark brown, with lighter interstitial skin, sometimes with more or less obvious lighter cross bands, mostly on interstitial skin; a spectacle-shaped hood mark may be present, especially in some juveniles; ventral side creamish, with two or three dark brown cross bands; throat heavily mottled with dark brown pigment in adults.
Scalation: 27-31 scale rows around hood, 19-21 at midbody, usually 21 just ahead of midbody; 173-185 ventrals, 50-58 paired subcaudals.

Size. 100-120 cm, maximum 140 cm

Distribution. Myanmar (Burma) - confined to the dry zone surrounding the city of Mandalay.

Naja oxiana - Central Asian Cobra

Also known as: Oxus cobra, Russian cobra

Identification. Pattern: juveniles are very pale, with a faded appearance, with conspicuous dark and light cross-bands of approximately equal width around body; adults are uniformly light to chocolate brown or yellowish, some retain traces of juvenile banding, especially the first few dark ventral bands; no hood mark, no lateral throat spots.
Scalation: 23-27 (usually 25) scale rows around hood, 19-23 (usually 21) just ahead of midbody; 191-210 ventrals, 57-71 paired subcaudals; cuneates often absent.

Size. 100-150 cm, rarely more.

Distribution. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, NE Iran, northern and eastern Afghanistan, northern half of Pakistan, Kashmir, E to Himachal Pradesh (India).

Taxonomic comment. Naja naja specimens without a hood mark are often confused with N. oxiana, especially in Pakistan and northern India. Naja oxiana is never fully black, although some specimens may be quite dark. Also, N. oxiana normally has several dark bands under the throat, whereas in black N. naja from Pakistan, almost the entire throat is black.

Naja philippinensis - Northern Philippine Cobra

- Now with photographs

Identification. Fairly stockily built. Pattern: adults uniformly light or medium brown, occasionally some lighter variegations; juveniles dark brown, with lighter variegations, sometimes a dark band behind the throat.
Scalation: 23-27 (usually 25) scale rows around neck, 21 (rarely 23) just ahead of mid-body; 182-193 ventrals, 36-49 subcaudals, basal pairs sometimes undivided.

Size. Usually up to 100 cm, rarely more.

Distribution. Philippine Islands: known with certainty from Luzon, Mindoro, Catanduanes and Masbate, likely to occur on other neighbouring islands. Records from the Calamianes group and Palawan require confirmation.

Naja sagittifera - Andaman Cobra

Identification. Pattern: dorsal ground colour dark; juveniles have a series of light lines ascending along the side, giving a series of A-shaped marks when seen from the side; monocle hood mark present; adults tend to be uniform.
Scalation: 175-183 ventrals, 60-64 divided subcaudals, 27-29 dorsal scale rows around hood, 21-23 scale rows at midbody.

Size. Maximum adult size unknown

Distribution. Andaman Islands.

Naja samarensis - Southeastern Philippine Cobra

- Now with photographs

Identification. Unmistakable. Pattern: dorsal ground colour black, with numerous light variegations, especially between scales; in juveniles, a conspicuous light line along dorsal scale rows 2, 3 or 4; pattern less conspicuous in adults; venter light, cream or yellow; one very wide (usually more than 10 ventral scales) dark ventral band.
Scalation: 17-25 scale rows around the hood, 17-19 ahead of mid-body; 161-184 ventrals, 41-52 subcaudals, basal pairs sometimes undivided.

Size. Apparently rarely exceeds 100 cm.

Distribution. Philippine Islands: recorded from Mindanao, Samar, Leyte, Bohol and Camiguin. Likely to occur on other nearby islands.

Naja siamensis - Indochinese Spitting Cobra

Also known as: Black and White spitting cobra, Isan spitting cobra; Naja (naja) isanensis, Naja (naja) sputatrix.

Identification. Pattern: highly variable. Specimens from northern and eastern Thailand tend to be uniformly light brown, olive, sometimes distinctly greenish, often with a somewhat faded appearance. Specimens from central Thailand are highly variable. Some have a very contrasting black-and-white pattern, with or without speckling and cross-banding, and a light venter with or without broad dark cross-bands, others are some shade of brown or greyish brown, with or without lighter cross-bands on dorsum, often with several broad dark bands across belly, others, especially from the west, are uniformly black. Hood mark in northern, eastern and southeastern Thailand V, U, or, most commonly, spectacle-shaped, but often very indistinct or absent altogether; in central Thailand, H-shaped hood marks are also common, but hood marks are often absent altogether.
Scalation: 25-31 scale rows around hood, 19-21 just ahead of midbody; 153-174 ventrals, 45-54 subcaudals, basal pairs sometimes undivided.

Size. Usually 90-120 cm, maximum 160 cm.

Distribution. Thailand (except on Malayan Peninsula), western Laos, Cambodia, southern Vietnam.

Taxonomic comment. Often mislabelled as Naja sputatrix. The latter is never black and white, and normally lacks any clearly defined pattern.

Naja sputatrix - Southern Indonesian Spitting Cobra, Javan Spitting Cobra

Identification. Pattern: Javan adults usually uniform yellowish, brown or blackish; juveniles often have throat band and lateral throat spots, sometimes a hood mark, which is most often chevron-shaped, rarely mask-, spectacle-, horseshoe- or O-shaped; specimens from the Lesser Sunda Islands usually medium or light brown, with lighter scale bases; throat band and heart-shaped hood mark persist into adulthood.
Scalation: 19-28 scale rows around hood, 18-21 just ahead of midbody; Javan specimens have more scale rows than Lesser Sunda specimens; 162-183 ventrals, 42-54 subcaudals, normally all divided.

Size. Up to 150 cm, rarely more.

Distribution. Southern Indonesia: Java, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Komodo, Flores, Lomblen, Alor, possibly other islands in the group. The occurrence of this species on Timor and Sulawesi requires confirmation.

Taxonomic comment. Practically all Asiatic spitting cobras were at some point or another known as Naja naja sputatrix or Naja sputatrix, especially N. sumatrana and N. siamensis. Differs from N. sumatrana in having a more or less uniform throat (boldly patterned or at least marbled in N. sumatrana) and almost always fewer ventral scales. Differs from N. siamensis in lacking a conspicuous pattern.

Naja sumatrana- Equatorial Spitting Cobra

Also known as: Black spitting cobra, Malayan spitting cobra, golden spitting cobra, Sumatran spitting cobra; Naja (naja) sputatrix (Malaysia), Naja naja miolepis (Borneo).

Identification. Pattern: no hood mark; highly variable, many differences between populations:
Malayan Peninsula: in southern part, usually bluish-black; juveniles have a light throat area with one or several pairs of lateral spots and often a median spot, in adults, black pigment usually obscures most of the throat area; occasionally, some white cross-bands in juveniles; in northern part, uniformly yellowish or light brown, with or without a clear pattern on the throat;
Sumatra: light, medium or dark brown, sometimes black; throat pattern usually clear; often approximately a dozen lighter cross-bands on dorsum.
Borneo, Palawan and Calamianes: juveniles black with approximately a dozen forward-pointing chevron-shaped white cross-bands; backward pointing chevron band on neck; throat light, belly dark except for cross-bands; adults usually uniformly black, except head and first 2-3 ventrals, which may be yellowish brown.
Scalation: 19-27 rows around hood (normally 21-25), 15-19 just ahead of mid-body; 179-201 ventrals, 40-57 subcaudals; basal subcaudals often undivided.

Size. Usually 90-120 cm, rarely 150 cm or more.

Distribution. Equatorial south-east Asia: Malaysia, extreme southern Thailand, Indonesia (Sumatra, Borneo, Bangka, Belitung, the Riau Archipelago) and the Philippines (Palawan, Culion); may occur on other islands in the region; possible remnant population in western Java.

Taxonomic comment. Populations from the Malayan Peninsula were long mislabelled as Naja (naja) sputatrix. Populations from Borneo were formerly known as Naja naja miolepis. The systematics of this species need further analysis. Naja sputatrix lacks any clearly defined pattern on the throat, and usually has fewer ventral scales.

Common problems and misconceptions in Asiatic cobra systematics

What is and what is not Naja sputatrix?

Historically, the name Naja sputatrix or Naja naja sputatrix has been misused for just about every population of spitting cobra in southeast Asia. The name sputatrix was originally coined by the 19th century herpetologist Boie for the spitting cobra found on the island of Java, Indonesia. The name sputatrix is therefore only available for the species found on Java. This species, Naja sputatrix, is restricted in its distribution to Java and the Lesser Sunda Islands (Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Komodo, Flores, Lomblen, Alor; the species could conceivably also occur on Timor and Sulawesi, but this requires confirmation).

In the past, the name Naja (naja) sputatrix has also been misapplied to a number of other cobra species. In particular, spitting cobras from Thailand and Malaysia have long been referred to as Naja sputatrix. In fact, these belong to two entirely different species: The black spitting cobras from Malaysia (as well as the golden or light brown spitters from northern Malaysia and southern Thailand) are Naja sumatrana, whereas the spitting cobras from most of Thailand, including the conspicuous and popular black and white spitters, are Naja siamensis. Naja sputatrix is never boldly patterned, unlike most of the other Asiatic spitters, which can have fairly obvious markings under the throat or on the body.

What are the subspecies of Naja naja?

This question often arises, and needs to be put in the context of taxonomic change. Until the late 80s/early 90s, all Asiatic cobras were thought to be part of the single species, Naja naja. The various differing forms were classified as subspecies of this single species - thus names such as Naja naja kaouthia, Naja naja sputatrix, etc. Since the early 90s, most of these forms have been regarded as entirely separate species from the Indian spectacled cobra, to which the name Naja naja rightfully belongs. This is one level at which the question of the subspecies of Naja naja can be answered.

The other concerns the question of whether any subspecies are recognized within the Indian spectacled cobra, Naja naja sensu stricto. In the 1960s, a Sri Lankan herpetologist, Deraniyagala, described several subspecies or variants within what we now regard as Naja naja. This includes Naja naja karachiensis, which refers to the black cobra from southern Pakistan, and also the colour variety polyocellata from Sri Lanka. As mentioned in the discussion of the species, variation in Naja naja  is clinal from Pakistan to southern India and Sri Lanka. The Pakistan black cobra represents one extreme of this cline, with low dorsal scale row counts and black adults. However, uniformly black adults also occur in other parts of India, where the scale row counts are much higher - the blackness is thus no indication of generalized differentiation. Splitting off the black Pakistani cobra as a separate subspecies would thus simply represent an arbitrary subdivision of a cline. The name polyocellata was never intended as a subspecies designation for the Sri Lankan cobra. Instead, it was intended to refer to a pattern type where the hood shows further ocelli in addition to the normal spectacle mark. This condition is commonly found in Sri Lanka and sometimes also in India. The Sri Lankan populations of Naja naja show little differentiation from those from southern India.

The upshot of all this is that no subspecies of Naja naja are recognized my most herpetologists today. Not recognizing subspecies does not mean that herpetologists do not recognize that a Pakistani cobra is different from a Sri Lankan cobra. It simply means that these differences do not come in clean, discrete categories, but intergrade over large distances. Furthermore, it must also emphasized that what has been written here simply represents our present state of knowledge. Clearly, further work, perhaps using molecular techniques, is likely to shed far more light on the problem of variation in this species. Until this is done, we can only go with the evidence available at this time, and this is based on the analysis of morphology.

How can I relate the older literature to current cobra classification?

Matters are further complicated by the fact  that the old subspecies of Naja naja, as previously recognized, did not always correspond to the species currently believed to exist. In other words, some of the old subspecies were either trivial local variants, and their names are no longer used, or they were found to be heterogeneous, and encompass populations of several currently recognized species. relating the older nomenclature to that currently used is therefore not straightforward.

The appended table provides a kind of "taxonomic conversion table" for the older and newer literature. Note that if the locality of origin of a snake is unknown, it may not be possible to determine which currently recognized species an animal mentioned in the literature belongs to.
Naja atra N. n. atra (common), N. sputatrix atra (China, northern Vietnam - LINGENHÖLE and TRUTNAU, 1989)
Naja kaouthia N. n. kaouthia (common), N.n. siamensis (common in the toxinological literature), N.n. sputatrix (Vietnam, rare), N.n. leucodira (REID, 1964), N. kaouthia suphanensis (yellow form from central Thailand, rare)
Naja mandalayensis no synonyms
Naja naja N. n. naja (common), N. n. oxiana (patternless specimens from  northern India), N.n. indusi (NW India, northern Pakistan, rare), N.n. karachiensis (black form from southern Pakistan), N.n. polyocellata (Sri Lanka, rare), N.n. caeca (Patternless specimens from northern India - rare)
Naja oxiana N. n. oxiana, N.n. caeca (rare)
Naja philippinensis N.n. philippinensis
Naja sagittifera N. (n.) kaouthia, N.n. sagittifera
Naja samarensis N.n. samarensis
Naja siamensis N. n. kaouthia (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, through confusion), N.n. sputatrix (Thailand), N.n. isanensis, N.n. atra (Thailand), N. atra (Thailand), N. sputatrix atra (rare, Thailand), N. sputatrix isanensis, N. isanensis.
Naja sputatrix N.n. sputatrix
Naja sumatrana N. n. sumatrana (Sumatra), N.n. sputatrix (common, Malayan Peninsula, Bangka, Belitung), N.n. miolepis (Borneo), N.n. leucodira (Malayan Peninsula, Sumatra), N.n. kaouthia (yellow form from northern Malaysia - REID, 1964; TWEEDIE, 1954), N. sputatrix sputatrix (Malayan Peninsula, Java - LINGENHÖLE and TRUTNAU, 1989)


Asiatic cobra systematics references

DERANIYAGALA, P.E.P. (1939) A new colour variety of cobra from Ceylon & South India. Ceylon Journal of Science (B), 21(3): 233-235.

DERANIYAGALA, P.E.P. (1945) Some new races of the python, Chrysopelea, binocellate cobra and Tith-Polonga inhabiting Ceylon and India. Spolia Zeylanica, 24: 103-113.

DERANIYAGALA, P.E.P. (1960) The taxonomy of the cobras of south- eastern Asia. Spolia Zeylanica, 29: 41-63.

DERANIYAGALA, P.E.P. (1961) The taxonomy of the cobras of south- eastern Asia, Part 2. Spolia Zeylanica, 29: 205-232.

LINGENHÖLE, S. and TRUTNAU, L. (1989) Über die Kobras der Gattung Naja Laurenti, 1758 in Thailand. Herpetofauna 11: 6-13.

SLOWINSKI, J.B. & W. WÜSTER (2000) A new cobra (Elapidae: Naja) from Myanmar (Burma). Herpetologica, 56(2): 257-270. pdf

WÜSTER, W. (1992) A century of confusion: Asiatic cobras revisited. The Vivarium, 4: 14-18. pdf

WÜSTER, W. (1996) Taxonomic changes and toxinology: systematic revisions of the Asiatic cobras (Naja naja species complex). Toxicon, 34(4): 399-406.  pdf

WÜSTER, W. (1998) The cobras of the genus Naja in India. Hamadryad, 23(1): 15-32. pdf

WÜSTER, W. & R.S. THORPE (1989) Population affinities of the Asiatic cobra (Naja naja) species complex in south-east Asia: reliability and random resampling. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 36: 391-409. pdf

WÜSTER, W. & R.S. THORPE (1991) Asiatic cobras: systematics and snakebite. Experientia, 47: 205-209. pdf

WÜSTER, W. & R.S. THORPE (1992) Asiatic cobras: population systematics of the Naja naja species complex (Serpentes: Elapidae) in India and Central Asia. Herpetologica, 48(1): 69-85. pdf

WÜSTER, W. & R.S. THORPE (1994) Naja siamensis, a cryptic species of venomous snake revealed by mtDNA sequencing. Experientia, 50: 75-79. pdf

WÜSTER, W., R.S. THORPE, M.J. COX, P. JINTAKUNE & J. NABHITABHATA (1995) Population systematics of the snake genus Naja (Reptilia: Serpentes: Elapidae) in Indochina: multivariate morphometrics and comparative mitochondrial DNA sequencing (cytochrome oxidase I). Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 8: 493-510. pdf

WÜSTER, W., D.A. WARRELL, M.J. COX, P. JINTAKUNE & J. NABHITABHATA (1997) Redescription of Naja siamensis Laurenti, 1768 (Serpentes: Elapidae), a widely overlooked spitting cobra from Southeast Asia: geographic variation, medical importance and designation of a neotype. Journal of Zoology, 243: 771-788. pdf

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