by Whit Gibbons

April 22, 2012

I received two communications last week about the environment. The first, from someone in Arizona, was a question about the much-maligned Gila monster, America's largest native lizard and our only venomous one. The second was an observation about nature's resilience from someone in Alabama.

Q. I have a question about the Gila monster, an animal I consider an altogether admirable and respectable creature. I saw two at a San Francisco reptile show called Summer of Slither last year. It had been 55 years since I last saw one. I have learned what I can about them, but there's something I don't know. I heard that once a Gila has a hold of you, it won't let go. Is that true? Do Gilas know if they let go they could fall where you could harm them?

I understand that snakes strike and recoil, waiting to see if they need to strike again. Holding on seems like a good idea for a Gila. I was told that even if you cut off the animal's head, the nervous system will keep it biting for some time. Can the head-keeps-biting-after-death part be true? I know it's true for snakes.

There are people pushing to make garter snakes the national reptile. Garter snakes! I'd like to make the Gila our national reptile instead.

A. Great to hear from someone who likes Gila monsters as much as I do. They are indeed impressive creatures. One reason they hang on when they bite is that whereas a snake injects venom through hollow fangs, the Gila monster must keep chewing to let the venom seep into its mouth from salivary glands and then into the wound through grooves in its razor-sharp teeth. This can take several minutes.

Two friends of mine have been bitten by Gila monsters. In neither case could the person remove the animal, which held on with a viselike grip. Someone had to pry the animal's mouth open with a screwdriver and pliers. And though human and lizard survived in both cases, the bites were very, very painful. As to whether it is true that the head keeps biting after death occurs, the mouth might indeed lock in place if the animal's head were cut off. It is also possible that the Gila might bite even harder if it were aware that something was trying to kill it.

With regard to the best candidate for national reptile, the Gila monster would certainly be in my top 10 list.

The following comments came from someone in Tuscaloosa, Ala., who lives in a neighborhood hard hit by last spring's devastating tornado. "I have a marvelous phenomenon in my front yard. My magnolia was dramatically changed by the tornado and on one side a lone branch now sticks out about eight feet above the front sidewalk. I looked up the other day and saw a nest on that branch. A large portion of the nest is constructed from strips of blue plastic from the FEMA tarps that we were given to patch our roofs! My next door neighbors had a tarp on their roof for six months before reconstruction began on their house. The tarp flapped in the wind, and every day I picked up tendrils of blue tarp. Now I wish I had left more of them on the ground for the birds to use.

"I've seen two robins around the nest. And there's another bonus: I had the sidewalk under the branch repaired last week. I put a small ramp between two sections of sidewalk that had been raised due to root growth of the magnolia underneath. The new cement has two sets of bird tracks imbedded in it. I think the robins were staking out their territory and marking ownership with their signature!"

This is a compelling observation about how nature continues to flourish, even when only one branch is left on the tree. It is a message of hope for all of us that we can do the same.

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