Here There Be Monsters
There is a creature in the American southwest that can spit venom, kill people with their noxious breath (because they didn’t have an anus and defecated through their mouths,) sting with their tongue, and leap several feet in the air to attack...and their bite was definitely fatal.
The “Tombstone Epitaph” wrote of one of these lizards on May 14, 1881…”This is a monster as is a monster, and no baby at that, it being probably the largest specimen ever captured in Arizona. It is 27 inches long and weighs 35 pounds." On May 8, 1890, a rancher thought he had killed one and tied it to his saddle. He was mistaken and the animal bit his finger and wouldn’t let go. A ranch hand pried the critter off, cut open the finger, and tied saddle strings around it (first-aid wasn’t very logical back then,) He went to a doctor in Tuscon, where he experienced swollen and bleeding glands for a while afterward.
The doctor who treated the rancher was very interested in studying the reptile. In an 1890 Scientific American, Dr. George Goodfellow (known as the "Gunfighter's Surgeon") wrote “The breath is very fetid, and its odor can be detected at some little distance from the lizard. It is supposed that this is one way in which the monster catches the insects and small animals which form a part of its food supply - the foul gas overcoming them.”
What God awful animal is this? The Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum.) Dr. Goodfellow was interested in the Gila monster’s venom and acquired a collection by paying five dollars or collecting them himself. In 1891, he provoked a Gila into biting him on the finger to see what would happen. He spent five days in bed but completely recovered.
Of course, none of what I said up there is true but the beliefs still prevail and Gila monsters are unfortunately killed even though they are protected today.
In Greek, “Heloderma” means “studded skin” and “suspectum” from the man who discovered them. Paleontologist Edward Dinker Cope “suspected” they were venomous because there were grooves in their teeth, but wasn’t sure. The little monsters were once thought to be one of only two venomous lizards in the world (along with their close relatives, the Mexican beaded lizard,) but it has now been discovered that the varanid family (monitors) are also venomous, particularly Komodo dragons. However, they are definitely one of two venomous lizards in North America and the largest native lizard in the United States.
Their upper body is covered in bead-like scales called osteoderms (small bones) that are black with pink, yellow, orange bands. Gila monsters (named for the Gila river basin in Arizona where they were once common) are well adapted to their desert life. Tails are 20% of their body length and unlike most lizards, do not break off and regrow. Like most other lizards, though, their tails store fat and they can live off it for months, sometimes for more than a year. They can eat up to one-third of their body weight at each meal. They also have a unique way of conserving water - their bladder acts as a “canteen.” After it rains in the Spring, they will binge drink water - up to 20% of their body size! This would be the equivalent of an adult human carrying a 30-pound gallon of water inside of them. This prevents them from dehydrating during the dry season. Since they live in burrows in the scrubland of Arizona and parts of Nevada, California, Utah, New Mexico, and northern Mexico, they have scary looking claws in which to dig. They avoid open lands like farms and ranches and prefer to be among the thickets, burrows, scattered cacti, mesquite, shrubs, rocky slopes, arroyos, and canyon bottoms of the Sonoran, Mojave, and Chichiuan deserts.
Though they are the largest lizard in the United States, they only get to 21.5 inches and weigh only 1.5 - 3 pounds. They have stumpy little legs that they walk upright on...very slowly but determined, with their heads swinging back and forth. Gilas can also climb to reach their food, up to eight feet. Over 90% of their time is spent in burrows, spending only an average of three to four weeks up on the surface. They are active mostly during the dry season (Spring and early Summer) early in the morning where they bask and look for food. Towards the middle and end of Summer, they come out less, and then only in the evening. They are relatively long-lived lizards, around 20 years in the wild, and over 30 in captivity. They survive on insects, amphibians, small birds, nestlings, rodent pups, small lizards, carrion, and their favorite, eggs. Larger animals may be crushed to death before being swallowed whole, and smaller ones are eaten alive. Eggs are broken open and the contents are eaten. They don’t have very good eyesight so to find food, they are equipped with a forked tongue that they flick around to scent food, in the same way, that snakes use their tongues. And like snakes, they are very accurate. They can detect chicken eggs buried six inches in the ground and accurately follow the trail of a rolling egg. Because of their limited hunting time, once they have eaten, they immediately start looking for more.
While little is known of their social behavior, Gila monsters emerge from dormancy in January or February and appear to be solitary, though some do share burrows. By May or June, the males start looking for a pretty gal to mate with. Male on male combat has been observed in competition for a female’s...er, claw? Like most other things they do, this is a very slow fight. The objective appears to be to twist and arch their backs in order to become the dominant lizard. After that is all done with, the victor initiates, but if she doesn’t feel like it, she’ll get pissy, bite the male and walk off. She will lay 3-13 eggs in July or August, burying them around five inches in the sand so they can be incubated in the heat. They hatch four months later, but since food is scarce and winter is coming, they “overwinter,” or stay put until the Spring when it warms up and food is available. They are “mini-adults,” with brighter colors. Born around six inches long, they have the ability to envenomate right away.
Pissy Gila Monster - You can see why you have to work at getting bitten.
I haven’t talked about their venom, yet, have I? It doesn’t appear to be needed in order to catch food...how do you kill an egg with venom? It is used for defense only. They are preyed on by coyotes, dogs, cats, and birds of prey. And us. They really have to be harassed before biting though. They would much rather walk away - at most, stopping to hiss and bluff. The venom is mild and nonfatal, though a trip to the hospital is recommended in case there is an allergic reaction. There isn’t any antivenin and treatment would just subside the effects. Their venom glands are located in their lower jaw but don’t have the musculature to forcibly bite and they don’t have fangs. What they do have is a strong bite, grooved teeth, and a tenacious grip. Capillary action forces the venom up into the grooves of the bottom teeth while the little monster is chewing. One of the hardest things to go through is to disconnect the lizard from the flesh. First, make sure the Gila monster is on level ground. Swinging them in the air will just cause them to hold on harder and be less inclined to let go. Getting a strong stick to pry their mouths open or dunking them in water should help with that. According to Arizona Poison Control, a bite can cause localized swelling, high blood pressure, faintness, excessive sweating, nausea, chills, fever, and excruciating pain. First aid should include irrigating the wound with water, immobilizing the affected limb at heart level and the wound should be checked for broken teeth (which are loosely placed in the jaw and can be broken off - and regrown - throughout their lives) and seek immediate medical attention. If you are bitten by a Gila monster, then you must have really deserved it - it’s a very hard thing to accomplish. “It chased me” won’t work either unless you run less than the one mile per hour they move.
Here’s the most important thing to know about their venom: have you heard of Byetta (or Extenatide?) It is a prescription drug released in 2005 for Type II Diabetes. Turns out that the Gila monster has a protein that is 50% identical to a glucagon-like peptide hormone that is released from the human digestive system to regulate insulin. The monster protein is effective longer than the human hormone, slows down the emptying of the stomach, decreases appetite which contributes to weight loss. If you take Byetta, you are taking what is known as “lizard spit.” Don’t worry, it’s made with synthetic lizard spit! That’s not the only possible medical treatment that can emerge from Gila venom. One component has been shown to inhibit the growth of lung cancer and protect against degenerative neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Amazing stuff!!
Gila monsters are quickly losing their habitat and were declared protected in Arizona in the 1950s, the first venomous animal to be protected.
These slow, sluggish lizards are fascinating, cute, and a national treasure that we need to protect. Instead of being vicious animals that can kill with bad breath, they have a venom that can heal some of the most common and horrible diseases in humans, they heal.
Below are some more videos and pictures of these adorable little guys.
We'll give this guy a break..."Gila" is pronounced "HEE-la!"
A vicious battle in slow motion!