Joining the King Team

Snakes have always fascinated me. Their sleek, elegant bodies decorated with dazzling colors and intricate patterns along with their undulating, serpentine locomotion are almost mesmerizing.  Snakes lead secretive lives spent stealthily slithering around on their bellies, and they occupy nearly every habitat and have filled almost every kind of niche worldwide. Everything about their being seems so different from what we’re familiar with (or some might say comfortable with), that they seem to have a special air of mystery about them shared by few others in the animal kingdom. Like many of my wildlife biology peers, I grew up watching television shows on Animal Planet and National Geographic showcasing the often feared and misunderstood animals like crocodiles, venomous snakes, and arthropods. As a young child, watching Steve Irwin passionately explain the intricate biology of the numerous deadly snakes in Australia had an indelible effect on me, and I’ve been captivated by these creatures ever since. So now, years later, I find myself in a foreign country working on one of the most significant snake ecology projects in the world, studying perhaps the most majestic species of all– the king cobra.

Two weeks ago I boarded a plane and flew to Bangkok, Thailand where I hopped on a bus and headed to Sakaerat Environmental Research Station (SERS) located within the larger Sakaerat Biosphere Reserve in Northeastern Thailand.

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Sakaerat Environmental Research Station

SERS provides facilities for researchers all over the world and has hosted many diverse projects in wildlife biology and forest ecology. In addition to research, SERS offers numerous educational opportunities for students across Thailand, and rarely a day goes by when the campus is not full of schoolchildren learning about nature and going on guided walks through the forest. It’s an amazing research station located in an incredible location, with abundant wildlife that can be seen even on the campus. The herping here is fantastic and within my first couple of nights, I had already seen over a dozen species of reptiles and amphibians.

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green tree pitviper (Trimeresurus macrops)

Perhaps one of my favorite species is the green tree pitviper (Trimeresurus macrops) which seems to glow bright green when illuminated with a headlamp.

 

At SERS, I will be working on the so-called “King Team”, which is part of the larger Sakaerat Conservation and Snake Education Team, for the next six months as part of a long term study on the spatial ecology of king cobras. The project studies the behavior and movements of king cobras year-round, giving us a window into their secretive lives. This is one of only two long-term studies on the species, the other being a study done in the Western Ghats of India where much of the behavior and seasonal activities of these snakes appears to be quite different than what is observed here in Northeastern Thailand. In general, there are not too many ecological studies done on snakes as they are secretive, difficult to track, and have historically been considered to have a primitive biology and less interesting social lives than other charismatic wildlife like primates and big cats. Thankfully this latter view is changing as recent studies have revealed unexpected complexity in snake behavior, with some species exhibiting highly developed social communication, intricate breeding behaviors, and even parental care. Numerous interesting snake ecology projects have taken place at SERS, broadening our understanding of these intriguing animals, and the king cobra study may be one of the most significant. For more information about the snake research projects at SERS, please visit https://sakaeratconservation.wordpress.com/ .

The king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is the world’s longest venomous snake, with some individuals growing over 5m, or 16 feet. They are found all throughout Southeast Asia in a variety of habitats ranging from dense rainforest to urban water canals.

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Typical forest habitat fit for a king. We signaled our large male in this area last week.

They are notorious for their habit of preying on other snakes. In fact their genus name, “Ophiophagus” literally translates to “snake eater” as they prey on ratsnakes, pythons, and even other cobras. King cobras are not true cobras, and are genetically more closely related to the African mambas than the true cobras in the genus, Naja. It is often said that king cobras are highly intelligent, and indeed their unblinking gaze gives one the sense of a deadly cunning that is not seen in other snakes. This species has a very interesting social life, with individuals living mostly solitary lives until the breeding season. Males wrestle for the chance to mate, forgoing the use of venom and instead using the sheer strength of their upper body to pin their opponent to the ground. The female king cobra builds a nest by looping her coils around dead leaves and dirt and pulling it into a mound within which she’ll lay her eggs. This is the only species of snake known to actively build a nest, and it is quite the feat considering they have no limbs or claws to accomplish the task.

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Rice paddies are also good habitat for a king cobra

Here at Sakaerat, the king cobra is the apex predator in the ecosystem. The only natural threat to a king cobra is a bigger king cobra. Thus this species with its charismatic presence, well-developed social life, and ecological dominance warrants intensive scientific study.

 

We use radiotelemetry to track the kings and record data on their movements and behaviors. Small transmitters are surgically implanted by qualified veterinarians, and then we use radio antennas and receivers to follow the snake’s signal much like the technique used to track condors and lemurs on the previous projects I’ve worked on. King cobras can move vast distances in a short amount of time, and they are thought to have one of the largest home ranges of any species of snake (though of course there are still many species yet to be studied). We track the snakes three times a day at four hour intervals, obtaining pinpoints and recording habitat data. Lately we’ve been tracking them through agricultural areas, as well as the dipterocarp forest near the station.

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The king’s lair: the signal led us to a burrow

Since we never want to get too close to the animals for obvious reasons, we use a telemetry method called triangulation in which we record the direction of the strongest signal, move to another location and record the signal direction again, continuing this until we get an accurate pinpoint of the snake’s location where all the signal lines cross. With this method we can get a confidently accurate estimate of where the cobra is without needing to get a visual on it. It can be terrifyingly exhilarating as you approach a snake, unaware of its exact location while the sound of the beeping signal intensifies. Of course we are always extremely careful, and awareness of your surroundings and deep concentration are both required to safely get a location point on the snakes.

 

The King Team is made up of a great group of people and I feel really lucky to be a part of such an important study. Our team is led by PhD candidate, Max Jones from the Suranaree University of Technology, and sponsored by several different organizations including the Thailand Institute for Science, Technology, and Research. For the next six months I look forward to contributing to this research and learning all about the amazing herps in the area!

4 thoughts on “Joining the King Team”

  1. This is such an amazing read. I have a better idea of what you’re doing. I still feel trepidation. I hope you will never handle these creatures, but knowing you as I do, …well let’s move on. No, I have another question. I realize that you’re observing from a distance albeit there is still an element of danger. But will you at some point be required to physically handle any of these snakes in captivity?

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    1. I will be able to have hands on training under direct guidance of trained professionals in a controlled setting. We have strict protocols here and use the proper tools to work the snakes in a manner that reduces as much risk as possible.

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  2. Wow Andy! Thank you for sharing your adventures and spreading conservation throughout the world! Stay safe and have a wonderful new adventure watching over these beautiful creatures 🙂

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  3. Another fascinating read, full of interesting facts most of us don’t know. What a privilege for you to be working on this project – thank you for sharing the adventure!

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