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How are spitting cobras so accurate?

A spitting cobra can shoot its venom into the eyes of a moving target with astonishing accuracy. Bruce Young, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, wanted to find out how.

Biologist Bruce Young at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell wanted to know how spitting cobras can shoot their deadly venom with such accuracy into a moving target's eyes. So he taunted them. Repeatedly.

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All cobras are venomous, but the aptly named spitting cobra goes one step further to spray blinding venom from its fangs at would-be predators.

Remarkably, these serpents can hit a victim's eyes from more than 5 feet (1.5 m) away even as they are moving with roughly 90-percent accuracy. It turns out these snakes achieve their extraordinary aim by predicting where their targets are going to be in roughly half the time it takes to blink an eye.

To analyze how these reptiles were such dead shots, functional morphologist Bruce Young at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell stood behind a sheet of plastic and recorded the venom sprays of spitting cobras in South Africa as they aimed for his eyes.

Curiously, the snakes wiggled their heads right before letting fly. A colleague of Young, herpetologist Guido Westhoff at the University of Bonn in Germany, had also seen this head shake in the cobras, so the researchers and their colleagues worked together to figure out what it might accomplish.

To provoke the serpents to spit, "I just put on the goggles and the cobras start spitting all over," Young said. He also donned a visor fitted with accelerometers to track his head movements. At the same time, the other researchers filmed the cobra's movements at 500 frames per second, or roughly 20 times faster than the average camera speed.

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