Posts Tagged ‘mainsh rai’

It is that time of the year again, when one of the most interesting events in nature unfurls in the Western Ghats. I am talking about female king cobras building their nests. As I write this, these snakes have either zeroed in on the location or are eagerly looking out for one right now!

King cobra breeding season starts from early February when males seek females who leave their scent (pheromones) behind. Most often more than one male vies for a female resulting in male combat and the triumphant male gets to mate.

Male combat-a sort of wrestling match where each one tries to subdue the other by pushing the head to the ground

Courtship lasts anywhere between 5 minutes to 2 hours and continues for days during which they mate multiple times. In 2007 I observed pairing for up to 30 days.

Courtship followed by mating:The male nudges the female by gently moving over her and the female displays submissive behavior by spreading her hood after which they mate

 After this the male leaves and the gravid female moves in search for a place to build her nest. Males do not play any role in building or guarding the nest. Typically females are ready to lay eggs by the last week of April. For the five years that I have been studying king cobras at Agumbe I have seen sixteen nests and most of them were found between 22nd and 26th of April (which means this week!). I was lucky enough to observe four females in action.

Females typically select a slope close to a tree with adequate shade. Considering Agumbe receives more than 8000mm of rainfall annually, this selection makes sense as, a slope guarantees the flow down of rain water preventing any stagnation, the buttress ensures a strong base and the shade ensures regulation of sunlight and decelerates rain drops before falling on the nest.

Nest under dappled sunlight

It is not until one appreciates how a limbless creature can build a well engineered nest that one realizes how our hands destroy natures wonders so unmindfully. The female gathers leaf litter (from a radius of 3-5m) in tight coils and slowly but steadily deposits them together. She repeatedly moves into it to tighten and pack the leaves firmly. Once the nest is around 30cm tall and 3feet wide she moves in to lay her eggs.

Female carrying leaf litter after looping them within with her coils

In nests observed around Agumbe, the clutch size varies from 23 to 43 eggs. The female then comes out and continues to build till the nest is about 4 feet tall. She generally stays on the nest and guards it for 12- 15 days. In one case in 2008 the female was present on the nest till the 27th of May, which is the longest record we have observed around Agumbe. During this entire nesting period the females rarely feed. Incubation period varies between 90 to 113 days; incubation temperature varies between 24-28 C and humidity between 55-90%.

The first time I witnessed a king cobra on a nest was at Coorg (informed by Snake Shyam from Mysore). As always the inherent curiosity of humans had gotten the better of them and the nest lay disturbed. It was heart wrenching to see the female painstakingly working to cover the nest with the scattered leaf litter to protect the eggs from the downpour.

Eggs lay exposed after the nest was disturbed by locals

Installing a board at a nest site requesting people not to disturb

Though people revere king cobras in the Malnad region of the Western Ghats they certainly do not favor a king cobra nest with 40 eggs anywhere close to their homes. Hence they prefer shooing the female away, or disturb the nests and some go to the extremes of burning the nests down.

Unprecedented developmental activities leading to dwindling habitats is already impacting the survival of this species and if entire nests are burned down it is hard to imagine what we stand to lose. At the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station we embarked on the study of wild king cobras and their habitats. Over these years we have monitored several nests and involved local students who are the custodians of these forests.

Local student monitoring a king cobra nest

 This community based research approach has been a success and we have released over 400 hatchlings back to wild, with a success rate of 98%. Now one needs to keep in mind that typically in reptiles out of every clutch only one or two reach adult hood.

Apart from Agumbe we are now networking with other states where king cobras are found to study and conserve them. In 2009 I visited Uttarakhand and monitored a nest along with Manish Rai who is doing remarkable work with king cobras there.

Female king cobra guarding her nest at Uttarakhand

These king cobras build their nests in June and females stay on the nest for longer periods as compared to their counterparts in the Western Ghats.

This year I visited Thrissur, Kerala and met Dr.Nameer, Professor at the College of Forestry with whom we hope to tie up to monitor nests this year. In the coming months I will be visiting Andhra Pradesh, Mizoram and a few North Eastern states to unravel the secrets hidden in their folds.

True to Benjamin Franklin’s words I believe “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

PS: Watch out for the post on hatching …..When it is time!

Authors: Sharmila & Gowri Shankar

Edited by: Shweta Harish & Manoj

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