Added 13 May 2007. Last updated 18 April 2010 with details for both species and the Bibliography.

A Look at the Family Elapidae


Tree Cobras


Tree cobras are (unsurprisingly) inhabitants of tropical African forest. SHDA describe them in appearance as a cross between a mamba and a cobra. They are large and slender, with short narrow heads and very large eyes with a round pupil. The hood is not as broad as that of a typical cobra. Apparently not much is known about their habits, other than their arboreal nature and their oviparity. Like other cobras they are quick and alert, and likewise their venom is highly toxic.

Bogert (1942) confirmed the validity of the genus and gave its characteristics as follows: maxilla with paired fang sockets, followed after a gap by 2-4 small, recurved, feebly grooved teeth; palatine teeth 10-17; pterygoid teeth 24-41; anterior ribs scarcely longer than those on posterior of body; dorsal scale rows normally 15-13-11, with reduction to 13 scales occurring either on the neck or posterior to middle of the body; tail to body ration .21 to .24; adult coloration dorsally black, ventrally yellowish or whitish, with black margins on posterior edges of ventrals. Compared to Naja (the true cobras) Pseudohaje possess more palatine, pterygoid and mandibular teeth but relatively smaller fangs and have fewer dorsal scale rows, a proportionately larger eye, a squamosal that extends scarcely beyond the skull, and a proportionately longer tail.

Scientific Name Common Name Distribution Size Notes
P. goldii Water Cobra, Gold's Tree Cobra  Ghana, Gabon, Togo (see Schmidt & Noble), Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Dem Rep Congo, Angola, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya


Max TL 2.7m: avg 1.5-2.2m; tail about 1/5-1/4 of TL Although arboreal, this species also hunts terrestrially and besides river: it has been caught in both squirrel and fish traps. Diet includes fish and amphibians, but O'Shea suggests it may also hunt mammals due to its being found in squirrel traps. SHDA note that if disturbed the snake will pause with the head up, moving it from side to side like a metronome. Scalation details: 1 preocular, 3 postoculars; 7 supralabials of which 3rd & 4th enter the orbit, 8 infralabials, of which first 4 touch anterior chinshields; temporals normally 1+2, rarely 1+3 or 2+2; dorsal scales smooth and glossy, in 15 (sometimes 17) scales at midbody, reducing to 13 just past midbody; 185-205 ventrals (Bogert reported males as having slightly higher minimum count than females); 76-96 subcaudals (Bogert again suggested slightly higher caudal minimum for males). Other: body cylindrical; tail long and thin, up to nearly a quarter of the body length, ending in a spike; skin very fragile; Bogert reported 2-4 (usually 3) small recurved teeth present in each maxilla behind the paired fangs, and from 3 specimens 14-17 palatine teeth, 37-41 pterygoid teeth, and 24-25 mandibular teeth. Coloration: dorsally glossy black; scales on head sides, chin and throat are yellow edged with black; juveniles may have 1-3 yellow crossbars or bands. Ventrally yellow. Reproduction: clutches of 10-20 eggs [SOURCE: Bogert, Schmidt & Noble, SHDA]. 
P. nigra Hoodless Cobra, Black Tree Cobra  Ghana, Liberia, Togo, Benin, Nigeria |Max 2.0-2.1m; tail about 1/5 of TL Referred to by Bogert (1942) as Pseudohaje guentheri. Scalation details: 6th supralabial in contact with 1-2 (usually 1) lower postoculars; loreal may be separated from the preouclar; 3rd supralabial extends from nasal to the eye, excluding 2nd supralabial from contact with preocular or, if present, the loreal; 8 infralabials, of which first four touch anterior chinshields, which are slightly longer than the posterior pair: dorsal scalation in 15 rows at midbody; 180-185 ventrals; 74-82 caudals. Other: tail ends in stout but pointed spine; 2-3 (usually 2) teeth on maxilla behind pair fangs; palatine teeth 10-12; pterygoid teeth 24027; mandibular teeth 21-22. Coloration: dorsally greyish or blackish; most dorsal scales darker edged, but ventrolaterally only slightly darker than ventrals; ventrals whitish, narrowly edged with black except on throat, where only the lateral margins are black; caudals are also black margined, becoming progrssively darker posteriorly until no pattern is visible on posterior third of tail. Juveniles may bear crossbars. [SOURCE: Bogert 1942]


"Pseudohaje Günther, a valid genus for two West African arboreal cobras", Charles M Bogert, American Museum Novitates, Number 1174, June 24 1942. Confirms the validity of the genus and gives details from the records and material known at that time. Since this was over 60 years ago, it is possible that there may have been slight variations found since: on the other hand both species apparently remain enigmatic. The species described by Bogert as guentheri is now known as nigra, its original proposed name.

Field Guide to the Reptiles of East Africa by Stephen Spawls, Kim Howell, Robert Drewes and James Ashe, Academic Press London 2002.

Contributions to the Herpetology of the Belgian Congo, Karl P Schmidt and G K Noble, Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, 1998 (reprint of 1919-1923 papers).

Venomous Snakes of the World, Mark O'Shea, New Holland, 2008 edition. Useful overall guide to venomous snakes, few anatomical details but venom is briefly described for each species.

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