The high price of sex

November 30, 2012 06:44 pm | Updated 06:53 pm IST

FATAL ATTRACTION A pair of mating king cobras Photo: Rom Whitaker

FATAL ATTRACTION A pair of mating king cobras Photo: Rom Whitaker

How would a nubile female king cobra seduce a potential mate without becoming prey? After all, king cobras are snake-eaters, and cannibalism is a distinct possibility.

All female snakes give off a special scent that attracts males of their kind during the breeding season. But king cobra girls have another trick: They flash a golden yellow chevron-shaped marking on the backs of their heads by flaring their hoods. Rat snakes, king cobras’ staple diet, don’t have this mark nor do they have hoods. Only a blind and anosmic (no sense of smell) male king cobra would confuse his squeeze for a meal.

It helps that the males of many snake species starve when they go looking for sex. However, at the Madras Crocodile Bank, captive male king cobras did not lose appetite. They ate just as well as any other time of the year. We don’t know whether studs in the wild fast during the breeding season.

In 2008, field assistants of the king cobra research project were called to remove a snake from a farmer’s courtyard in Agumbe, Karnataka. They discovered two king cobras hiding in a hole under a tree buttress. The assistants convinced the farmer to leave the creatures alone, and reassured him by keeping watch from afar. It was late in the breeding season, and for three weeks, the snakes had a regular routine of basking, mating, and hiding.

One day, the honeymoon turned into a horror show without warning. The 11-ft male suddenly clamped his jaws around the eight-ft-long female’s slender neck. She twisted and struggled, but he had her in a bulldog grip. Her throat ripped and blood gushed out. She would not die easily; perhaps she was immune to his venom. She fought for her life for 45 minutes and lost.

It was hard to watch the video recording of this tragedy. I covered my face with my hands, and listened to the assistants sobbing on the sound track.

When I looked again, the male was swallowing the female’s lifeless body. He reached her baby bump, regurgitated and crawled away. For many minutes after the screen went blank, we sat shell-shocked. Some of us had tears streaming down our cheeks.

One assistant said 10 days before the tragic incident, another male king cobra had shown up. The two males had fought and the defeated one crawled away. The animals weren’t marked as they weren’t part of the research project. So the assistants didn’t know who won. Even the video recording was no help as the snakes disappeared under bushes frequently. Was the murderer the new or old male?

Someone suggested perhaps the female had mated with the defeated male, and hence the victor killed her. But why canoodle for 10 days before killing her?

Male spiders, scorpions, and praying mantis pay with their lives for sex. Reverse sexual cannibalism is rarer, practised by a few arachnids and crustaceans. I found only one case of sexual cannibalism in vertebrates, and it was another snake. Some female green anacondas eat one of their smaller suitors as a last meal before fasting through their seven-month pregnancies.

Did the male king cobra think she was a rat snake? Before he grabbed the female’s throat, he had made courtship overtures, and she had responded appropriately.

Did the male king cobra get his feeding and mating cues mixed up? Then why throw up? King cobras eat stout snakes such as pythons. The female’s belly bulge was not large enough to choke. Maybe this was just a rare aberration, we consoled each other.

A couple of weeks after this horrendous incident, one of the female king cobras in Rom’s research project was found dead. The front part was rotten, as if a male had swallowed her and puked. She had a flat tummy; no eggs. Were male king cobras psychopaths?

We don’t know. Soon afterwards, the research project terminated.

If I could offer advice to female king cobras, I would say: mate and run.

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