Monsters among us

“How large the dreaded Gila Monster grows, no man can say.” — from the forgettable 1959 B-movie, The Giant Gila Monster

One of the Sonoran Desert’s fascinating creatures is the Gila Monster (pronounced HEE-lah), the only poisonous lizard native to the US and one of the oldest lizards in North America, with close relatives dating back 10,000 years.

Despite the claims of Hollywood horror films, Gila Monsters are not known for attacking and eating sleepy Texas towns.

They are one of the most strikingly-decorated lizards, with orange and black beaded scales that meander across their bodies in seemingly random patterns. Their faces and tongues are black, and their feet are tipped with claws used for digging up the nests of small animals. Their diet consists of quail eggs and whatever small creatures they can grab. They walk with a slow, pigeon-toed gait, lumbering along like some prehistoric beast as they search for food, water and love.

A fifty-foot Gila Monster would be quite impressive, but in real life they don’t seem to grow more than two feet long. I’ve never seen one much bigger than a foot from nose to tail — still an impressive size for a lizard!

Gila Monsters are elusive creatures, preferring to live underground during the hottest summer days. So, whenever I stumble on one, I grab my camera. They aren’t dangerous so long as you don’t handle or corner them. You definitely don’t want to get bitten — their jaws exert a bulldog grip as they grind on your flesh, their venom flowing from grooves in their teeth. Nasty.

Because they can go a long time between feedings, researchers wondered how the Gila Monster regulates insulin.

In work at the University of Alabama, in cooperation with Arizona State University, researchers isolated a protein from Gila Monster venom that stimulates the production of insulin. This Exendin-4 protein has only been found in the Gila Monster — it doesn’t seem to occur in any other living animal. And its purpose in the Gila Monster isn’t understood.

Exendin-4 has been synthesized into a drug that is effective in the treatment of Type-2 diabetes in humans. By stimulating the production of insulin, Exendin-4 helps the body process glucose, a necessary fuel for all cells.

Gila Monsters are another of God’s remarkable creations. They are beautiful and fascinating animals, not well known outside of the southwest desert. Here are a few photos of the ones I’ve seen wandering through my yard. Enjoy!




Photo credits: Charlie Lehardy

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  1. Despite the claims of Hollywood horror films, Gila Monsters are not known for attacking and eating sleepy Texas towns.

    Next you’ll be telling me that giant preying mantises don’t get nepalmed in the Holland Tunnel!

    Great photos, Charlie!

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