Halloween Week – Top 10 Gila Monster Facts

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Welcome to another post in our Halloween Week Series! Today is day 2 of 7, and we’re going to be discussing the Gila Monster. Keep reading to learn more facts about this “monstrous” lizard.

Quick Facts

Scientific Name: Heloderma suspectum

Common Names: Gila Monster

Geographic Range: Southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico

Life Span: 20 -30 years

Conservation Status: Near Threatened

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Top 10 List

1. Venomous Lizard

Gila Monsters are one of a few venomous lizards. They are among lizards such as beaded lizards and komodo dragons. It is thought that their venom is used more for protection – as opposed to help them kill their prey. When threatened they may bite their attacker, and their venom will be produced from a gland in their bottom jaws. The venom then flows through grooves in the gila monsters teeth, and they may chew to help propel the venom into the skin of their attacker. While their venom is as toxic as a coral snakes they only produce a very small amount at a time. This means that a bite to a healthy human adult is not fatal – just painful. 

2. Strong Bite

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While Gila monsters are generally slow moving animals, they are able to bite quickly when necessary. And when they do bite – they hold on and don’t let go. People have had to either fully submerge the lizard in water to encourage it to let go, or pry the lizard of and risk further injury and lacerations to the bite area. Symptoms of a Gila monster bite are excruciating pain, edema, and weakness from a rapid drop in blood pressure. 

3. Myths And Legends

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Despite the fact that Gila monsters are not fatal to humans there are many misinformed myths and legends surrounding these animals. These include the following:
– In the Old West, Pioneers believed that Gila Monsters had foul/toxic breath, and a fatal bite. They also believed that these lizards could weigh 35 pounds!
-The Apache believed that the breath of the Gila monster could actually kill a person.
-The Tohono O’Oham and the Pima believed that the Gila monster possessed the spiritual power to cause sickness and illness. 
-The Seri and Yaqui believed that the hide of a gila monster had healing properties. 

Other mythes from various places include that the Gila Monster could spit venom, jump several feet in the air to attack it’s victim, and that their breath was so foul because they expelled their waste through their mouth. 

4. Big Lizard!

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The Gila monster is the largest lizard that is native to the United States. (Non-native lizards that have been introduced to the US such as the iguana however, are larger.)They can typically grow to 20 inches, 20% of which is their tail. They are on average 4 pounds, however their weight can range anywhere from 1-5 pounds. They have a short, fat tail, and a broad head and shoulders. Their eyes are black with a round pupil, and their claws are long and sharp. Beaded scales run down their back and are mainly black and unique pink in colour. However some have hints of orange or yellow colours in their scales as well. 

5. Egg Lovers

Gila monsters main diet mainly consists of various bird/reptile eggs. However, they may also eat small birds, small mammals, frogs, smaller lizards, insects, and carrion. Gila monsters have a very poor sense of sight, but their acute sense of smell more than makes up for it and helps them in their hunt for food. They can use their claws to help them climb trees and cactus to help them get to their favourite food – eggs. In the wild they tend to eat rather infrequently, however when they do eat they can consume up to 1/3 of their body weight in one go. The extra fat from their meals is stored in their bodies and especially their tail. This helps them in times where they don’t eat for long periods – such as winter months. 

6. Habitat Of The Gila

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Gila monsters reside in the Southwestern regions of the United States, as well as Mexico. In fact, they got their name from Arizona’s Gila River Basin which is located in the US, which is where they were first discovered. They pick areas such as scrublands, succulent deserts, and oak woodland. They spend a majority of their time hiding in burrows, thickets, and under rocks. Due to the fact they like to burrow and hide they avoid open areas such as open fields and flatlands. Gila monsters seem to be fond of water, hiding in places that have a nice amount of moisture, and even sitting in puddles after summer rains. 

7. Baby Monsters

Early Summer is breeding season for the Gila Monster. After breeding the female Gila monster will lay and bury 3-13 eggs in a shallow area so that they are protected, but still able to be heated/incubated by the sun. The eggs will then stay there for approximately 120-150 days, although in some cases it may be even longer. When the eggs hatch, the young gila monsters are around 6.3 inches long and look like small versions of the adults. However, they may be a bit more brightly coloured than the adults. It takes the babies around 3-5 years to mature, however they are on their own from day one during this process. 

8. Sleep Habits

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Gila monsters are diurnal, solitary animals. They spend most of their lives alone hiding in various burrows and hides around their territory. They are most active and spend the most time above ground during 3 months in the spring, the rest of the time they are burrowing and resting. They spend the winter underground hiding from the cold, at which time the fat stored in their tails’ from warmer weather comes in handy to help them survive this time. 

9. Personality And Various Habits

Male combat for access to female that is hiding in nearby shelter.
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Gila monsters prefer a surface body temperature of 30 degrees C. They are slow in their movement and sprinting, however they do have quite good endurance. They are the most active in the morning during warm months, and only leave their burrows to lounge around in the sun and find food. Gila monsters walk with their legs up high, with their body of the ground, and tail swinging slowly. During mating season, males will wrestle with each other. The winner of these fights gets to claim the territory, which hopefully has a female in the area. Despite the fact that Gila monsters will wrestle and may even bite each other, they are immune to their own venom. 

10. Conservation

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According to the IUCN list, Gila monsters are near threatened. In fact, in 1952 they were the first venomous animal to ever be given legal protection in efforts to stop their decline. The United States and Mexico prohibit collection of these animals throughout their range. Various factors contribute to the decline in population of Gila monsters. These include urban expansion, habitat loss, domestic dogs and cats, raptors, and being illegally collected for the pet trade. To combat some of these problems Gila monsters now have sizeable habitat protected by national parks and federal wilderness areas. In 1963 the Sadn Diego Zoo was the first zoo to successfully breed these animals in captivity, meaning that breeding programs would be an option for the future.

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