Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Gila Monster

Gila monster sightings are rare. One reason is because these huge lizards spend up to 98% of their time below ground. But urban sprawl has also affected their numbers. They are listed as near threatened and are protected by state laws in Arizona and Nevada.

I have observed Gila monsters only four times in Tucson over the past 15 years. The last time was at Sabino Canyon in July 2008 while it was raining.

My son and I were delighted to see this Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum) the other morning just outside of DeGrazia's Gallery in the Sun. It was about a foot and a half long.

Most Gila monsters are camera shy. The creature did move away from us at first, swinging its head from side to side as it lumbered along. We only briefly saw its black forked tongue.
But then it apparently settled into a comfort zone in the shade where it stayed for at least an hour.
Gila monsters are the largest lizards in the US, and one of only two known venomous lizards in the world. Their venom is as toxic as that of rattlesnakes, but in such small amounts to rarely be fatal to humans. The bite does hurt though, because the lizard clamps on and chews the venom into the victim. If harassed, Gila monsters will gape and hiss before striking. Here's a sound clip of a hissing Gila monster from the Desert Museum.
Since they are slow moving, Gila monsters mostly eat helpless prey such as bird and reptile eggs or newborn rodents. They store fat in their tails and only need to eat five to ten times per year. Females lay eggs in the summer and the eggs incubate over the winter until the next year. Hatchlings are venomous and can bite.
There have been many legends regarding Gila monsters, for example that their breath can kill a man. But there actually is a drug for type 2 diabetes made from a synthetic form of a protein derived from Gila monster saliva.
Gila monster scales appear in shades of either pink, orange or yellow combined with black into intricate patterns. The designs remind me of Native American art.
The beadlike scales are bony plates called osteoderms. Gila monsters are regarded as living fossils as osteoderms of that species from the Pleistocene period have been found. Check out the bumps on the skull pictured below:
Even though they are found in the desert, Gila monsters don't seem to care for arid weather. That might be why they mostly stay underground. They have been observed swimming and wading in the creek and a neighbor reported finding one alive in a swimming pool.
We shared this Sonoran Desert treasure with some other visitors at the gallery and a hummingbird seemed curious about the Gila monster as well. I doubt that I will ever have another opportunity to capture both a hummer and a monster in the same picture. But nature is full of surprises! No matter where in the world one lives, there are all sorts of natural wonders to discover, often just outside the door.

21 comments:

KaysWay said...

Well, he is very interesting, but since I don't like reptiles, he's kind of "yucky" to me. I guess where you live, there are a lot of reptiles.

Julie said...

What a really cool photo session! The monster sort of posed for you! Neat information, but I pray I never come into contact with one!!! LOL. I can't believe you and your husband go out looking for them in the rain! I'd be hiding in my bathtub quivering like a baby! LOL! :)

Teri C said...

WOW, that was really a find!!! So good that you could get so many photos. And at DeGrazia's yet! Great information Diane!!

LisaNewton said...

OMG, I hope never to run across one of those. Cool photos, but I think I'm glad there aren't any gila monsters in LA.

Hey, wait, we do have other kids of "monsters." :)

Gaelyn said...

Very cool to see. Their pattern reminds me of a Native weaving.

Natural Moments said...

I like that visual of hunting down monsters with confidence and determination. I didn't realize they spent so much time underground. Totally cool that you had a great opportunity to study him so well.

deedee said...

Amazing surprise... Fascinating information until I read the part about finding one in a pool :( Living so close to the canyon have you ever found any critters in your backyard?

Diane C. said...

@ Deedee - Even though I have a tiny wall-enclosed back yard I've seen raccoons, skunks, snakes, and hawks. At night, javelinas often visit my front yard. There have been reports of coatis in the area and I am eager to see one. :)

Martha said...

What a great sighting! You're very observant, I probably would have missed it.

david mcmahon said...

What an interesting series of photos, Diane. I'd never heard of these before, and I wonder if they are related to Komodo dragons, which are also lizards.

Dee said...

Oh how Exciting! I have never ever seen one but you make me want to go desert walking in the rain! You took some wonderful pictures and your post was so informative. I always find something way cool when I visit your blog!

Leedra said...

Very interesting post, thanks for sharing. You can keep him there though.

Leedra’s Photos For FunLeedra’s Greeting CardsPhotography By Leedra

Delphine said...

Hello from France! I came to you from Cheryl Anne's post. Thankyou for introducing me to the Gila monster lizard; I love lizard, we have hundreds of them around our buildings here, but they are just the little cheeky ones! You were lucky he hung around long enough for you to shoot such great pictures!

BC Doan said...

This is a learning session for me..I haven't heard of Gila lizzard before! It's fascinating!

Kevin said...

Truly amazing. I would love to see one of these some day. Thanks for doing so much research about the Gila Monster, makes you realize how important many of these animals really are.

Kathiesbirds said...

I saw a Gila monster here in Sycamore canyon and one in Sabino Canyon. You got some great shots!

Diane C. said...

@Kathiesbirds - How wonderful that you have seen at least two already! Thanks for sharing :)

Ilan said...

Wow.. What a prehistoric "Dragon"
Wasn't it scary to stand so close to the "monster"??

Diane C. said...

@Ilan - The gila monster wasn't hissing or looking stressed, so I wasn't afraid. I wouldn't get that close to a rattlesnake.

Vickie said...

What a cool neighbor to have!

Katie said...

I read about the Gila monster in my book. I wouldn't want to run into that thing!