Lifestyle and Lifespan
This is one of only two venomous lizard species in the world, (the other is the Mexican beaded lizard, Heloderma horridum). Gila monsters are large and stout, gaudily patterned lizards, with brightly colored bead-like scales on their backs. The skin coloration is black with contrasting pink, yellow and orange. The heavy-bodied lizard has a short, fat tail that stores fat it can live off of during periods of food shortage. The limbs of the lizard are stout and have heavy claws.
Sexual Dimorphism is quite subtle, but adult males have somewhat wider heads.
To aid in camouflage, they exhibit an overall backdrop of brown with spots, speckles or swirls of varying color. A very spiky tail used to swipe at predators, paired with on open mouth hissing, are there first line of defense. As a result of high concentrations of salt bearing plants, this species has glands in its nostrils used for eliminating extra salt without eliminating water. Can you tell in the picture below which is the Common Chuckwalla and which is the Mali Spiny Lizard (hint: look at the tails)?
They live in semi-desert of scrub with rocky outcrops, in places where moisture is readily accessible. They are found under rocks, in burrows of other animals, and sometimes in holes it digs itself.
The Gila monster ranges from extreme southwestern Utah, southern Nevada and adjacent to San Bernadino County, California; southeastward through west and south Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. It can be found south into Mexico through Sonora to northwestern Sinaloa. It ranges from sea level to 1500 meters in altitude.
Carnivorous. Small mammals, lizards, frogs, insects, carrion, birds and birds' eggs. They sometimes eat quail eggs whole, without crushing the shell.
Nocturnal. They spend 95% of their time underground and emerge only to hunt for food or to take a sunbath. They don't need to eat very often, because they can store fat in their large tails.
Once they bite, they will not usually let go on their own and must be pulled off. The longer this takes, the more venom they will excrete into the bite! Unlike most lizards, they come out at night!
Although primarily solitary, Gila monsters seem to have a loose social structure and occasionally share shelters.
Males compete for mates by engaging in carefully choreographed wrestling matches, in which the biggest and strongest lizard wins. These lizards mate during the summer. Mating begins with a male tongue-flicking to seek a female's scent, while rubbing his cloaca on the ground. When a male finds a female, he lies by her and rubs his chin on her back and neck while holding her hindlegs. If a female objects to the male, she will try to bite him while crawling out from underneath. If receptive, she raises her tail. The male then moves his tail under hers, bringing their vents into contact. Copulation lasts from 30 minutes to an hour. The female then digs a hole, lays a clutch of 3-5 large, leathery, oval-shaped eggs in the hole, (about 5" below the surface) and covers them. The eggs are not buried very deep, so the heat of the sun incubates them. About 10 months later, the baby Gila monsters break out of their eggs and crawl to the surface.
Offspring are only a few inches long, but look like vibrantly-colored miniature adults. The hatchlings are then ready to begin life on their own, no training required!
Listed as Near Threatened by IUCN. Gila monster populations are shrinking due primarily to human encroachments, and they are considered a threatened species! They were the first venomous animal in North America to get legal protection. It is illegal to collect, kill or sell them in Arizona!
Prey are rarely envenomated, which indicates that venom is used mainly for defense! Gila monsters are shy animals, and will usually only bite humans if they feel threatened.
Some tribes of Native Americans believe that Gila monster have mythical powers. These powers could include healing or causing sickness.
A component of Gila monster venom (Exendin-4) has been approved by the FDA to be used in a new drug called Byetta which helps in the treatment of type-2 diabetes.
The Gila monster is named for the Arizona Gila River Basin in Arizona, where they were first discovered.
These lizards are anything but ordinary! Unlike most lizards, they come out at night, they have a water reserve like a tortoise, and they eat infrequently like a snake. They mix all these attributes into something that works!
The Gila monster's venom is produced in glands in the lower jaw, not the upper jaws as in snakes. The poison is not injected but flows into the open wound as the lizard uses its powerful jaws to chew on its victims. It's bite, although painful, is not usually fatal for adult humans.
Burnie, David and Wilson, Don. 2001. Smithsonian Institution ANIMAL, DK Publishing. New York, p. 419.
Knopf, Alfred. 1998. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians, Chanticleer Press, Inc, New York, p. 546.
Whitfield, Philip. 1998. Encyclopedia of Animals, Simon and Schuster Editions, New York, p. 449.
Stewart, M. 2003. "Heloderma suspectum" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 16, 2017 at http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Heloderma_suspectum/