This month we revisit our paradoxical friend the Gila Monster (Heloderma Suspectum). Because the morphology of this family of lizards is relatively unchanged from its Miocene ancestors of over 25 million years ago, some consider Holoderma to be living fossils! In the last blog post I shared the darker side of the Gila Monster and how it became demonized. To this day, the adjectives used to describe it are often derogatory. For instance, Wikipedia describes it as a “heavy, slow-moving, sluggish lizard.” Could it instead be a careful, ponderous, relaxed lizard? I wonder what this dominant perspective on the Gila Monster tells us about ourselves.
I met a young woman recently who lived for a significant amount of time in the wild lands of Arizona, the homeland of the Gila Lizard. She encountered the large lizard frequently in her sojourns. She asked me, “What if we have it all wrong? What if the Gila Monster is a not a monster at all, but a therapeutic lizard?” So today, I will share some research on my friend the Gila Monster that may bring to light some of its more nuanced traits below those based on fear and rejection. First, lets look at some of its behavioral and perhaps even cultural traits.
Gila Monsters live a life of refuge, spending most of their time in sheltered areas. Some scientists estimate up to 98% of the lizards’ lives occur in and very near the mouth of their burrows. Being desert creatures they like water. They have been seen immersing themselves in puddles after summer rainstorms. Gila Monsters have a low metabolism and are one of the lowest speed sprinters of all the lizards, yet they have one of the highest aerobic scope values of any lizard. This means that although slow, they can sustain intense aerobic activity for long periods of time.
Using their keen sense of smell, Gila Monsters feed primarily on bird and reptile eggs. Because of their low metabolism these lizards need eat only to five to ten times a year. When they eat, they can consume up to 1/3 of their own body mass in one sitting!
The Gila Monster’s ability to sustain intense aerobic activity serves its mating rituals which include male-to-male wrestling matches and extended heterosexual love-making sessions. Although little is know of the social behavior of the Gila Monster, male to male combat, appearing much like a wrestling match, has been observed immediately prior to mating season.
In January or February, the orange and black lizards rumble out of the depths of their hibernation. By May or June they are ready to mate. Although often solitary, Gila Monsters will gather in communal areas for mating. The male begins by flicking his tongue to pick up the scent of the female. Once found, she can reject him by biting him and walking away. If she accepts him, they will copulate for anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 1/2 hours. As a result of this union, the female lays her leathery eggs in July or August. These eggs, numbering anywhere from 2 to 12, but averaging around 5, incubate for 9-10 months underground before successfully hatching sometime between April and June the following year. After egg-laying, adult Gila Monsters will spend less and less time above ground until they finally retreat into hibernation around November.
Some peoples indigenous to the lands of the Gila Monster have had negative reactions to the lizard similar to the “monster” reactions of the early European settlers. To the Apache, the breath of the lizard could kill. For the Tohono O’dham and Pima the creature had a spiritual power that could cause sickness. On the other hand there were tribes such as the Seri and Yaqui who valued the lizard, believing its skin holds healing powers. Perhaps the two sides of this paradoxical lizard are simultaneously accurate.
In the last Gila Monster blog, I discussed that the lizard does have a poisonous bite. But it turns out that its poison contains powerful healing properties as well! Of the four potentially lethal toxins in the venom, one called helodermin has been shown to slow or stop the growth of lung cancer. Another constituent of the venom is currently used to create medications to treat type-2 diabetes. In a three year study on a diabetes medication called Byetta, which is made from a synthetic protein derived from the saliva of the Gila Monster, taking the medication led to healthy sustained glucose levels and weight loss in diabetic individuals. Another chemical in the Gila Monster’s saliva is being researched for its ability to improve memory in diseases such as Schizophrenia, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s. This research is being pursued because the chemical has been shown to dramatically improve memory in mice.
Based on researching both the Monster and the Healer contained within this ancient creature, its therapeutic potential seems far greater than its potential for harm. In fact its healing powers contain so much demonstrated potential, I propose we change its name from Gila Monster to the Gila Healer. If you would like to meet these curious characters of the Sonoran Desert, consider staying with us at the Inns at El Rancho Merlita. With vast views of purple desert mountains, and close access to Gila Lizard sanctuaries such as Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, from our doorstep you can find deep, authentic connections with this unique and amazing land.
All the best until the next!