At first glance, you wouldn’t think Mesa, Arizona, would be home to anything interesting. It’s a desolate desert, made up of dirt and spikes. The only plants here are incredibly painful to touch, such as the tall, famous saguaro cactus, and the evil tree-like substance called cholla.
After looking over this barren land more carefully, however, you’re bound to notice a couple kinds of wildlife. There are a few birds that roost on cactus spines, and a squirrel here and there. You can hear coyotes calling in the evening. But the really incredible creature that inhabits this strange place is the Gila Monster. Pronounced HEE-luh, this strange beast is named for the Gila River, a stretch of water that snakes 600 miles across Arizona. They’re one of only two species of venomous lizards that have currently been discovered, the Mexican Beaded Lizard being the other.
Possibly you’ve heard stories of Gila Monsters growing to giant sizes on desert islands, and eating any unfortunate sailors that take refuge there. I had. And though, as far as I know, it hasn’t been verified that they can kill and consume humans, I still believe it’s possible. For one thing, their two feet of length, though fairly small for a “monster,” is quite giant for a lizard, and is certainly big enough to induce extreme fear, freezing some people up. If it catches you, you’ll be lucky to make it. Why? For one thing, they don’t let go.
Gila Monsters will latch their teeth onto a human and keep them there, and not without good reason, looking from their point of view! If you could live for a year on only three to four meals, as Gila Monsters can, wouldn’t it be great to store up a whole human’s worth of meat? That could sustain a Gila Monster for all of its 20-30 years!
Another reason Gila Monsters can be deadly is their venom. It’s hardly poisonous to humans, but for smaller creatures it does a great deal. As a Gila Monster latches its teeth onto its victim, it settles in for the kill. As they chew, they work more and more poison into the body.
Now a bit about appearance. The Gila Monster has round scales, very uncommon in modern lizards, that cover its leathery skin. Its coloration is mostly black, with orange patterned bands across its back. Baby Gilas are pretty cute, actually, but still very painful.
The tongue of the Gila Monster reminds me of the back end of a fish. Strange? Maybe.
I’ve told all the scary facts now, though! The end of this post is to motivate you, and encourage you to set another foot in the desert. Firstly, it’s incredibly unlikely that a Gila Monster will find you in the first place. They spend most of their lives in burrows underground, napping. Like most animals of that sort, they’re exceedingly lazy, sluggish, and slow. They’re rare to even see: We know some people in Mesa who have only seen one in eight years.
Mom saw one recently, but she didn’t leave the car to document the experience. She got a shot from the safety of that driving metal box. That’s probably your safest bet. So if you see a Gila Monster, take a picture and then continue on your way. Just stay out of his.