by Whit Gibbons

December 4, 2011

My son, grandson, and I were surrounded by live pythons, cobras, and Gila monsters. It would be fun to add, "there was no escape!" But that would be wrong. All we had to do was stroll to the exit of the Repticon Reptile and Exotic Animal Convention, the event where herpetoculturists (people who keep reptiles and amphibians for pets) gather to trade, sell, or simply display their animals. We were just there to look at up-close views of giant pythons from Asia, spitting cobras from Africa, and a lifetime supply of Gila monsters? Those on sale were captive-raised animals; removing Gila monsters from the wild in the U.S. Southwest is illegal.

The Gila (pronounced hee la) monster, our largest lizard, is one of only two truly venomous lizards in the world, the other being the closely related Mexican beaded lizard. 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 folklore and foolishness about the species. Even biologists may have a few misconceptions about how dangerous they are. Confirmed records of a healthy, sober person dying from the bite of a Gila monster are virtually nonexistent. Old newspaper articles give sensational, overstated accounts of deaths from the "Boris Karloff of the desert," but medical records and other evidence surrounding presumed lethal bites reveal that death was more likely caused by the victim's massive intake of alcohol. Without complicating factors, no one is likely to die from the venom of a Gila monster.

But a bite hurts 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. Pliers and a screwdriver were the implements two of my Arizona colleagues used for prying off an attached Gila monster. The vicious teeth, which look like pieces of broken glass, can slice and tear flesh 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 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 Gila monster's primary food consists of rodents, birds, bird eggs, and other lizards,. The head and body are covered with a primitive armor of bony plates beneath the skin, making it almost impenetrable by a predator's teeth.

Much remains to be learned about the ecology and behavior of Gila monsters. These bulky creatures may be able to go a year or more without food or water, but no one knows how long for sure. In one study, several of the animals equipped with radio transmitters were found to spend 95 percent of their time underground. What do they do all that time beneath the earth's surface?

After its scientific discovery in 1869, this fascinating lizard suffered due to human ignorance. But attitudes have changed with environmental education efforts. 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 became 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, which is not nearly as beguiling as a fat, pink, venomous lizard.

As we prepared to leave Repticon, I thought my grandson might try and cajole me into getting him a pet Gila monster. He didn't, probably because his dad had already dashed all hope of having a fun pet when he put his foot down about getting a baby cobra. Some parents are like that.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)