The Gila monster is a large, plump lizard with thick, fat tails, short legs and large heads. They can reach almost 2 feet in length when full grown. The scales on a Gila monster are shiny and beady. Typically they are brightly colored in a pink and black pattern.
Gila monsters possess a powerful venom which is produced in glands by the lower jaw. This venom is expressed along the lower grooved teeth as the animal bites. The teeth must break this skin so that the venom is absorbed into the laceration.
Although the venom is powerful, the bite is rarely life-threatening to humans. The wound can be very painful and the most common effects are swelling, nausea, vomiting and weakness. But, if you are bitten by a Gila monster, seek medical attention.
Gila monsters are slow moving reptiles and will usually give many warnings before biting. The lizard with try to get away, hiss and gape. But, if you try and handle one, they can bite with amazing speed. Please, let them be. Not only is it stupid, but it's also illegal!
Gila monsters are nocturnal creatures, usually found in desert canyons, sandy washes and the rocky foothills where the mighty saguaros grow. It hides in its burrow (which it may have dug or borrowed from another animal) during the day or when it's too cold. It's rare to see Gila monsters, not just because of their few numbers, but they can spend up to 98 percent of their time in their burrows.
Gila monsters have a high-protein diet that consists of newborn rodents, reptile and bird eggs and nesting birds. They use their sense of smell and taste to track their prey. They may consume as much as 50 percent of their diet in one feeding and may live up to several years off the fat stored in their thick tails.
You can usually see Gila monsters during the summer months and they hibernate from November to February. They can live from 20 to 30 years. They can lay anywhere from 3 to 12 eggs. The eggs are laid in late summer, but don't hatch until the following spring. The Gila monster is unique in this aspect also. It is the only known egg-laying lizard in North America where the eggs incubate from one year to the next.
There are many misconceptions and myths about the Gila monster. Some of these are:
- Once bitten, they won't let go until sundown
- It has to turn upside down to get the venom in you
- You have to cut its head off to make it release from its bite
- Its venom is due to the fact that it has no anus and all the stuff went bad in there
What is true, is that the Gila monster is a truly unique and special creature to the Arizona desert and that we should do whatever we can to ensure the Gila monster thrives in Arizona.
Note: In 1952 the Gila monster became the first venomous creature in North America to be given legal protection. It is illegal to collect, kill or sell them in Arizona.
Click here for some more information about the Gila monster from the Desert Museum (they also have a neat link to a soundbite of a Gila monster hissing).