I think most reptiles get a bad rap. They’re scaly, often creepy looking and a fair number of them (at least snakes) are venomous. But still, I think gila monsters get the bad end of the stick, even for a reptile. After all, they have the word ‘monster’ in their name. So today I’d like to share a bit about gila monsters, to try and clear their name. Or condemn them to truly being monsters. You can decide for yourself.

Gila monsters live in the southern United States and in Mexico, in desert areas where it is hot and dry. They prefer areas with some sort of shelter; either cacti and bushes or rocks and canyons. Despite their desert habitats, gila monsters seem to show a liking for water, and even bathe in puddles after it rains. So there’s a point for the non-monstrous side – gila monsters take baths. No monster would do that!

He’s pretty cute for a monster, isn’t he? Image By Jeff Servoss – http://www.fws.gov/southwest/es/arizona/Reptiles.htm, Public Domain

On the other hand, gila monsters get pretty big. At least, I would be uncomfortable walking in the desert only to stumble across a two foot long lizard. And an ugly one, at that. Despite its colourful markings, the gila does not look very pretty. They are scaly and heavyset, with rolls of skin that just make them look creepy. Gila monsters also have pretty big claws, adding to their fearful appearance. And on top of that, gila monsters are one of only two venomous species of lizards in the world (the other being its close cousin, the beaded lizard).

Luckily for people, gila monsters move very slowly, so unless you stick your finger in a lizard’s mouth, you probably won’t get bitten. Even if you do, you’re probably not going to die, despite the venom’s potent toxicity. See, unlike snakes, who have their venom-injecting fangs on the roof of their mouths, the gila monster has its venom glands on its lower jaw. This makes it a lot harder for the lizards to give their victim a large shot of venom, so not a lot generally enters the victim’s body. So yes, they have venom and can bite, and they don’t really let go (there are stories of having to fully submerge a gila monster in water before it would release its bite), but they are slow and easy to avoid, and don’t poison you that much.

A gila monster showing off its large claws. Image By MonsterDoc – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Gila monsters have voracious (one might say monstrous) appetites. They usually eat eggs, but also feed on any small animals they can find and also sometimes consume carrion. And when gila monsters eat, they eat. Adults can consume up to 35% of their body weight in one sitting; young can eat up to 50%. This is an adaptation to the scarcity of their food – in the wild gila monsters only eat five to ten times a year. They have an incredible sense of smell, and can detect eggs buried six inches in the sand. They can even follow the trail of an egg that has rolled down a hill.

So all in all I think gila monsters are treated unfairly. They may be ugly, large and venomous, but that doesn’t make them monsters. They’re just a group of animals doing their best to get by in this crazy world. There are many wild myths about about gila monsters. One is that their foul-smelling breath is toxic and can kill animals and people. One theory suggested that gila monsters had no anus, and had to expel waste from its mouth, leading to the terrible odour it exudes. There are also rumours that this poor, slow moving lizard can spit venom, or leap at things to attack them. Very, very false. Poor gila monsters. So misunderstood.

Cover image By Josh Olander – Josh Olander, CC BY 4.0