The largest venomous snake in the world and an icon to all snake enthusiasts,the king cobras venom is not,ounce for ounce (or milligram for milligram,as the professionals would measure it),the most potent. Among land snakes,that honour appears to belong to the inland taipan of Australia. But what the king cobra lacks in potency,it makes up for in volume. Its half-inch fangs deliver a huge dose,up to seven ml of venom,or about one-quarter of a whiskey shot glass. The lethality of venom depends on a combination of its potency,the volume delivered and the size of the victim. A king cobra bite can kill a human in 15 minutes and a full-grown elephant in a few hours.
What makes these cobras kings is not just their size,or their deadlinessafter all,they dont eat humans or elephantsit is that they eat other snakes. Even deadly snakes like kraits or other cobras are prey. These snakes bite when attacked,of course,which raises the question: How does the king cobra maintain such an apparently high-risk lifestyle?
Krait and cobra venoms,including that of the king cobra,act very quickly by crippling the nervous system. Among the arsenal of weapons in the snakes venom is one especially potent neurotoxin that works by binding to receptors on muscle cells. The toxin blocks the ability of acetylcholine,one of the bodys chemical neurotransmitters,to control muscle contraction. The blocking of these receptors causes paralysis,respiratory failure and death.
But the king cobra is not fazed by bites from its victims. Biochemists have carefully mapped exactly how neurotoxins block the acetylcholine receptor of many species,and they have discovered that the toxins do not bind to the cobras receptor. Mutations have altered the snakes receptor in such a way that,because the toxin cannot bind to the receptor,the acetylcholine function is undisturbed. The king cobra can subdue its dinner without suffering from any venomous counterattack.
This large snake,resistant to the very potent venoms of its prey,would appear then to be impervious. But how does the mongoose defeat the king cobra? The mongooses quick reflexes help it dodge the cobras defensive bite,and its powerful jaws can dispatch a snake in one blow. But there are also genetic grounds for the mongooses courage. Sometimes an attacking mongoose is bitten,but it has another line of defense against the venomits acetylcholine receptor has also evolved so that the cobra neurotoxin cannot bind to it. A set of changes in the mongooses receptor makes it resemble the cobras own resistant receptor.
The mongooses evolutionary adaptation is not unique. Other small,humble creatures have evolved ways to endure what for most animals would be lethal snakebites,and some of these resistant animals turn the tables to conquer and consume their venomous foes.
Sea snakes generally possess very toxic venoms. While the snakes rarely bite humans in the water,fishermen are struck occasionally when sifting through their trawls and have died from the bites of some species. The potent venom is not meant for large animals like ourselves,of course. Sea snakes prey on small marine animals,and the powerful toxins in the venom quickly immobilise the prey before it can swim off. Eels are some of the favourite foods of the banded sea krait. Some eels,however,have been observed to be remarkably resistant to the sea kraits venom.
Harold Heatwole and Judy Powell of North Carolina State University showed that undulated moray eels and liver-coloured moray eels found in the waters around New Guinea can tolerate several hundred times the venom dose that kills spotted moray eels from the Bahamas. The biologists explanation for the great disparity in the sensitivity of eel species is that sea snakes are not found in the Atlantic Ocean,so there has been no selective pressure on eels there,whereas in the Pacific,where sea snakes are abundant,selection has been so intense that some eel species have evolved resistance.
A similar situation has evolved among California ground squirrels with respect to the venom of northern Pacific rattlesnakes. This species and most other rattlesnakes kill their prey with a battery of toxins that is different from those of sea snakes and cobras. Rattlesnake venom toxins work by breaking down tissues and causing internal bleeding. A good-size rattlesnake can deliver a hefty dose of venom that is sufficient to kill a human if the bite is left untreated. But ground squirrels in some parts of California,despite being one hundredth the size of humans,exhibit fairly mild effects from the venom. This resistance is not the result of altered receptors,but comes from the ability of proteins in their blood serum to neutralise the effects of venom.
But squirrels of the same species from Alaska,where the rattlesnakes are absent,exhibit much greater sensitivity to the venom,and their serum is much less effective at neutralising the venom. These observations suggest that in some areas where the rattlesnakes are abundant,local squirrel populations have evolved a degree of resistance.
One family of completely harmless snakes,the kingsnake,has also evolved serum that neutralises rattlesnake venom and uses that ability to greater advantage than ground squirrels do. Kingsnakes are a group of beautiful constrictors found in many parts of the United States. As their name indicates,kingsnakes eat other snakesthey do not hesitate to attack,kill and consume rattlesnakes.SEAN B. CARROLL
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines