The Gila Monster

Some of the great myths about the Gila Monster (pronounced he-la) are: their breath is poisonous, they don’t have an anus because the poison is made from their own waste products (or conversely, they are poisonous because they don’t have an anus), if one bites you it won’t let go until it hears thunder or the sun sets, they can spit venom, and they can leap into the air and sting you with a poisonous tongue.

As usual, none of these are true. (If you are so inclined, you will find an anus if you look.)

The Gila Monster is North America’s only poisonous lizard. It is a beautiful specimen with bead-like scales and a colorful orange and black pattern that will bring to mind South Western art. It has been said the look a bit like ‘indian corn‘. They can grow as large as 2 feet. They tend to be nocturnal and eat eggs, birds, rodents, and insects.

The venomous bite is different than that of a snake. It does not use the venom for hunting, only for self defense, and it cannot ‘inject’ the poison, so it will ‘grind’ its teeth into the bite to work more poison into the wound. The poison is not usually fatal, but will result in nasty swelling and pain. Don’t worry, they are a slow animal and aren’t interested in chasing you anyway. Just leave well enough alone and you’ll be fine!

I found a great quote at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum website:

“Dr. Ward, of Phoenix, an old practitioner in the valley, says: “I have never been called to attend a case of Gila monster bite, and I don’t want to be. I think a man who is fool enough to get bitten by a Gila monster ought to die. The creature is so sluggish and slow of movement that the victim of its bite is compelled to help largely in order to get bitten.”

—Arizona Graphic
September 23, 1899″

They can eat as little as 5 to 10 times a year in the wild, according to the Philadelphia Zoo, storing fat in their large tails. Females can lay up to 12 eggs, but those can take 10 months to hatch.

There is a great article on the Gila Monster at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park website which also reports that the study of the Gila Monster’s venom has produced promising results in the treatment of diabetes and “another chemical in Gila monsters, a hormone called gilatide, may one day help people suffering from memory ailments like Alzheimer’s and attention deficit disorder.”

Maybe not so monstrous after all…

Unless you take into account it is one of the only two living species in a Clade called Monstersauria.