The truth behind snake charming

You know it’s a hoax – but how? The “snake charmer” on the New Delhi street sits cross-legged in front of the basket and begins to play his flute. Then, as if by magic, the cobra rises up, its hood spread, ready to bite. But instead, it seems hypnotized by the music, swaying with the sound of the flute, standing – but not striking. There’s got to be a trick – but what is it?

snake charming

Who’s charming who? Snakes actually sway to and fro at the sight – not sound – of a charmer’s flute.

Well, the answer to that question reveals some surprising facts about the cobra. Belonging to the Elapid family, there are about 16 species in the cobra genus Naja, some approaching three metres in length. They are venomous, able to inject powerful neurotoxins through the fangs – or in some species, spit the poison into their enemies’ eyes. They all have expandable hoods, produced by spreading the ribs in their neck under elastic skin. Some live in water, others live in trees. They feed on amphibians or, in some cases, other cobras

But they’re all extremely dangerous – right? Well a look at the elements of snake charming shows that the answer to that question is both yes – and no.

1) Standing and Hooded – Snake Charming

cobra snake charmingWatching a cobra’s head rise up from a basket, and then watching it sway in a standing position is an eerie sight. But standing is very natural to a cobra – most can raise about a third of their body lengths. And, says cobra researcher Dr. Wolfgang Wuster of the University of Wales, it’s not surprising they would stand up in a “charming” situation.

“The standing posture is the natural defensive posture of a cobra,” explains Wuster. “It says ‘Watch out, I am a cobra and dangerous, just go away and leave me alone, and we’ll both live happily ever after’. If you put a cobra in a a basket for a while and then remove the lid, the natural response of the startled cobra is to rear up.”

Even the harmless Eastern hognose will spread a hood on the defence.

The spreading of the hood is also part of that defensive posture – and surprisingly, it’s not unique to the cobra.

“Lots of snakes do this,” says Whit Gibbons, herpetologist with the University of Georgia’s Herpetology Lab in Savannah. “They do it to look larger, more threatening. Even non-venoumous snakes like the hognose snake will do it – but the hognose doesn’t bite. [However] the cobras have longer ribs to spread.”

2) The Sway

A “charmed” cobra will appear mesmerized by the music. But, say scientists, while the snake has a type of hearing, it is actually responding to the sight – not the sound – of the flute.

“Snakes don’t hear sound,” explains Cornell University herpetology professor Harry Greene, author of Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature. “But they are alert, and watch what’s moving. If the flutist sways, the snake sways, following him.”

So they’re not grooving to the beat? Maybe not, but they aren’t entirely unaware of the sound either.

“They don’t hear in the sense that we do,” clarifies Darryl Frost, curator in the department of herpetology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “But they’re very sensitive to vibrations, so they would certainly be aware of the music.”

3) Not Biting

How does a snake charmer “charm” a cobra into not inflicting a venomous bite? Well, according to the herpetologists, like other snakes, cobras are defensive, not aggressive -so it takes a lot to get a cobra to bite.

“Cobras are generally reluctant to strike, and many specimens will rear up for a considerable period of time when cornered, but will not attempt to strike,” says Wolfgang Wuster. “Second, the flute is a rather hard object, and once the cobra has bitten it a few times, it will probably learn that this is both painful and futile, and desist in future.”

But what if the cobra decides he’s had enough – and does want to strike out at the human sitting so calmly before him? Well, contrary to how scary it looks, avoiding a cobra’s strike — and bite — shouldn’t be that hard for the experienced flutist.

For one thing, according to Wuster, the cobra’s striking range is basically the extent to which the snake is reared up, which is only up to one third of its total length (rattlesnakes, by contrast, have a striking range of about one-half their body lengths.) So the “charmer” knows how far back to sit.

And the cobras’ biting technique also makes it easier to avoid than something like a rattlesnake.

“Vipers [such as rattlesnakes] strike outward in a punching movement,” explains Darryl Frost. “Cobras tend to bite downward from standing – the same movement as if you set your bent elbow on a table and swung your hand downward. It’s slower and easier to predict.”

Even if a “charmer” was bitten, the bite would not necessarily inflict much damage. While Whit Gibbons estimates that some cobras have venom 20 times more powerful than that of a rattlesnake, judging the potency of such poisons is difficult, and the deadliness of any one bite will depend on a complex mix of factors relating both to the snake and its victim. (For more on venom, click here)

Snake charming, in fact, may be most dangerous of all to the seemingly “charmed” life of the cobra.

“While this crude “training” is probably not particularly cruel, the treatment received by the cobras in many cases is,” says Wolfgang Wuster. “Many snake charmers remove the fangs from the cobras, or even excise the fang-bearing jaw bone. This normally results in infections, which will kill the snakes. Some charmers even sew the snake’s mouth shut. Furthermore, some charmers do not feed their cobras, but simply go out and catch more when their snakes die off. This is very variable, and there are, no doubt, many charmers around who do take reasonable care of their snakes, but there are many who do mistreat them grossly.”

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