Gila Monster

Characteristics

The Gila monster’s body is squat and heavy with a large head.  The scales have a granular surface, providing excellent camouflage with texture and color among the desert sand and pebbles.  Scales have the appearance of blue, hot pink, silver, pink, orange, baby blue or yellow beads, laid down in intricate patterns.  The Gila monster possesses large forefeet and short but sharp claws, ideal for digging.  The tail is short and thick, and it contains a fat store enabling it to survive periods of food shortage.

Behavior

Slow moving and awkward, this lizard is unable to catch anything but eggs and newborn animals.  It searches for nests of prey by following trails with its tongue and Jacobson’s organ (which is a special scent organ).  The Gila monster’s bite contains venom that attacks the nervous system of its prey.  The venom is strong enough to kill mammals and birds, but does not seem to be important for hunting as most prey are small enough to be subdued with jaws and teeth.  Unlike other venomous reptiles, the venom flows from salivary glands into a groove on the teeth, making its way into the wound.

Did You Know?  

  • The Gila monster and its Mexican cousin, the Beaded Lizard, are the only known truly venomous lizards in the world.
  • The Gila monster is named for the Gila River in Arizona.
  • A synthetic version of a protein found in Gila saliva is used as a treatment for diabetes in humans.

Our Animals

Both of our Gila monsters here at PPZ come from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, and have been with us in Lansing since 1993!  Visit them in the Bird and Reptile House year round.

Video

Scientific Name Heloderma suspectum
Conservation Status IUCN: Threatened
Size The body of a Gila monster can be up to 2 feet long, and weigh anywhere from 1.5 to 3 pounds.
Average Lifespan Up to 20 years in the wild, and 30 years or more in captivity.
Wild Diet Nesting rodents and rabbits, eggs, lizards, and birds.
Found in Southern Utah, Arizona to New Mexico, and Northern Mexico