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Target tracking during venom ‘spitting’ by cobras
Guido Westhoff, Melissa Boetig, Horst Bleckmann, Bruce A. Young


Spitting cobras, which defend themselves by streaming venom towards the face and/or eyes of a predator, must be highly accurate because the venom they spit is only an effective deterrent if it lands on the predator's cornea. Several factors make this level of accuracy difficult to achieve; the target is moving, is frequently >1 m away from the snake and the venom stream is released in approximately 50 ms. In the present study we show that spitting cobras can accurately track the movements of a potentially threatening vertebrate, and by anticipating its subsequent (short-term) movements direct their venom to maximize the likelihood of striking the target's eye. Unlike other animals that project material, in spitting cobras the discharge orifice (the fang) is relatively fixed so directing the venom stream requires rapid movements of the entire head. The cobra's ability to track and anticipate the target's movement, and to perform rapid cephalic oscillations that coordinate with the target's movements suggest a level of neural processing that has not been attributed to snakes, or other reptiles, previously.

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