GILA MONSTERS MAKE THE WORLD INTERESTING

by Whit Gibbons

October 7, 2002


Life is fascinating, and the array of plants and animals that have been discovered is amazing. Animals have been found living in sunless depths of the sea, acquiring energy from volcanic vents in the ocean' s bottom. Some plants are carnivorous, eating small animals; others elevate their own temperatures enough to melt a cover of snow. Or consider lizards, such as the Gila monster, with most of its U.S. geographic range in Arizona.

The Gila (pronounced hee la) monster, our largest lizard, is one of only two venomous lizards in the world, the other being the closely related Mexican beaded lizard. In 1991 David E. Brown and Neil B. Carmony wrote a book called " Gila Monster: Facts and Folklore of America's Aztec Lizard" debunking much of the myth and foolishness that center around the species. Even biologists may have a few misconceptions about how dangerous they are. For example, I can find no confirmed record of a healthy, sober person dying from the bite of a Gila monster. Old newspaper articles give sensational, overstated accounts of deaths from the " Boris Karloff of the desert," but on the basis of medical records and other evidence surrounding presumed lethal bites, death was often attributed to the victim's major intake of alcohol. In one confirmed report, a Gila monster was falsely accused for a death caused by a rattlesnake.

Unless other factors are involved, no one is going to die from the venom of a Gila monster. But a bite would hurt and might scare a person almost to death. Gila monsters are noted for their tendency to "hang on like a bulldog," so the first order of business is to get the animal off. Using pliers or a screwdriver is the technique most often mentioned for prying off an attached Gila monster. The vicious teeth, which look like pieces of broken glass, can slice and tear skin if the animal is yanked off.

Gila monsters are very fat as lizards go, with skin that looks like a covering of orange or pink and black beads or pebbles. They have been described as having "Halloween hued skin the texture of Indian corn." The large, rounded tail is half the length of the body and serves as a storage compartment for fat and water. The tongue is forked like a snake's, and the lizard's primary food is other lizards, rodents, birds, and bird eggs. The head and body are covered with a primitive armor of bony plates beneath the skin, making it almost impenetrable by the teeth of predators.

For anyone wanting to become an ecologist, plenty remains to be learned about Gila monsters. Some scientists speculate that these bulky creatures may be able to go a year or more with no food or water, but no one knows how long for sure. Where Gila monsters lay their eggs remains a mystery. Although this lizard is certainly conspicuous when aboveground, a Gila monster nest has never been found in the wild.

The general behavior of Gila monsters is also poorly understood. One study, in which several were equipped with radio transmitters, revealed that they spend 95 percent of their time underground. Do they come aboveground only to search for food? And what do they do all that time beneath the earth's surface?

For a century after its scientific discovery in 1869 this fascinating animal suffered due to human ignorance. In recent decades attitudes have changed due to educational efforts of environmentalists and ecologists. The Gila monster is now recognized as part of the Sonoran desert's natural heritage and symbolic of native wildlife of the Southwest. In 1950 Arizona officially rescued the species, being the first state to pass a law to protect a venomous reptile. In 1985 the Gila monster missed becoming the official state reptile of Arizona by only a few votes, losing out to the ridge nosed rattlesnake.

Attitudes can and do change. People can be made aware that nongame wildlife is part of our natural environment and worth preserving for its own sake. People have long been fascinated with dinosaurs and other denizens of the past. Real life animals like Gila monsters are equally intriguing. And like all our native species, they deserve our respect.



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