The monsters are out! Getting to see a Gila monster in the wild is quite a rare experience. But this time of year, spring through monsoons, your chance goes up! Their activity outside their burrow increases as they hunt for food and search for a mate.
Our Gila monsters are the largest lizards that live in North America. They’re almost two feet in length and can weigh between 3-5 pounds. With 20% of their body size being from their tails, they have quite a bit of “junk in the trunk” (thank you, 90’s slang). Their tails are quite extraordinary and can store enough fat to allow the monsters to eat only 3-4 large meals a year! Those fat reserves help them during the winter months when they are hunkered down in their burrows. They can survive for months without eating.
The Gila monster’s personality is quite subdued. These shy, slow moving, docile creatures are not in a hurry to go anywhere. They are chill, relaxed and happy to go with the flow. Gila monsters prefer to walk away from any threat, however if needed they will gape their mouth and even emit a loud hiss to warn their antagonist to back away. If all this fails, their swift and excruciating bite will follow.
Gila monsters are one of only three venomous lizards in the entire world! (The others are the Mexican beaded lizard and the Indonesian komodo dragon.) This means that being bit by a Gila monster is not a great idea. Oh yeah, also, there is no antivenom. When they bite, they like to clamp down and chew with their enlarged, grooved teeth. This allows their venom to really get into their victim’s skin. Their bite packs a big punch and is known to be extremely painful. One individual described the bite as feeling like his hand got slammed in a door and then set on fire.
Cool fact: In 1952 Gila monsters became the very first venomous animal in North America to receive legal protection. This means that it is illegal to harass, handle, capture or kill a Gila monster! Hefty fines and six months’ jail time can fall onto anyone found guilty of this misdemeanor.
Believe it or not, Gila monster venom is currently being used to treat type 2 diabetes. How amazing is that? Their venom contains a hormone called exendin-4, which helps the pancreas increase insulin production. Using their venom, the drug Byetta was created. Millions of diabetics are now enjoying a healthier life thanks to the monsters that are found in our own backyards.
I saw my first wild Gila monster only a couple of years ago, and I’ve lived in southern Arizona my entire life! When I saw him sitting in my front yard under an ocotillo, I stopped dead in my tracks. I was completely elated! It felt like I was able to put a big check mark in my imaginary southern Arizona bucket list. So, as the days grow warmer as the summer rolls through, keep your eyes peeled! You just might get a special treat of seeing a monster in July.