Online Field Guide to The Reptiles and Amphibians of Arizona
Maricopa County, Arizona
Santa Cruz Co., Arizona
|GILA MONSTER Heloderma suspectum
|DESCRIPTION: A large (up to 356 mm or 14″ from snout to vent) stout bodied lizard with a short, fat tail. The scales on the upper surfaces are hard, rounded, and bead-like. The tongue is dark and forked. Markings consist of a pattern of black bands or reticulations on a peach, orange, yellow, or pink background. There are usually 3 to 5 black bands on the tail. The snout and sides of face are black. Animals from the northwestern part of Arizona are usually banded. Animals from the south-central and southeastern part of Arizona usually have a reticulated or mottled pattern. Young from all parts of the state are banded.
DISTRIBUTION: The Gila Monster can be found across most of western and southern Arizona. Its range extends from the far northwestern corner of the state, down through our western deserts to Yuma, and eastward across nearly all of sub-Mogollon Rim southern Arizona. In our state it has been found at elevations ranging from just above sea level near Yuma to over 5,500′.
HABITAT: Biotic communities ranging from Arizona’s desertscrubs into the lower reaches of Great Basin Conifer Woodland and Madrean Evergreen Woodland are home to this lizard. It is most commonly found above the flats in rocky drainages and on rugged bajadas, hillsides, and mountain slopes.
BEHAVIOR: The relatively slow moving and lethargic Gila Monster spends most of its time in underground burrows. When surface active it tromps with an awkward, lumbering gait. Its total surface activity may add up to just 3 weeks per year. It is diurnal in spring and fall and nocturnal during the hot summer months. During the cold months of winter and late fall it hibernates in an underground shelter. It is not aggressive unless it is harassed or captured.
DIET: The Gila Monster is a carnivore that feeds on nestling mammals, nestling birds, the eggs of birds and reptiles, lizards, and carrion. It stores fat in its tail. Four or 5 meals may be enough to sustain the lizard for an entire year.
REMARKS: This lizard is a member of Helodermatidae, the only family of venomous lizards in the world. Venom secreted from glands in the lower jaw is delivered through grooves in the teeth. Bites are reported to be painful, but are rarely fatal to humans who get medical attention. Captive specimens have lived to over 25 years of age. Protected in Arizona.
By Thomas C. Brennan
Beck, Daniel, D. 2005. Biology of Gila Monsters and Beaded Lizards. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California.
Brennan, T. C., & A. T. Holycross. 2006. A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles in Arizona. Arizona Game and Fish Department. Phoenix, AZ
Brennan, T. C., & A. T. Holycross. 2005. A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Maricopa County. Arizona Game and Fish Department. Phoenix, AZ
Lowe, Schwalbe, Johnson. 1986. The Venomous Reptiles of Arizona. Nongame Branch Arizona Game and Fish Department. Phoenix, AZ
Stebbins. 1985. Western Reptiles and Amphibians. Houghton Mifflin. New York, NY
Stebbins, R.C. 2003. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA.
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