Animal Fact Sheet:  Gila Monster


Identifying Features

The Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) is a large heavy bodied lizard. It has a large head with small beady eyes and a short fat tail. It's skin is bright pink or orange and black in color with warty-like bumps covering its body.

Click to hear Gila Monster sounds



The colorful, beadlike skin of the gila monster helps with camouflage. Its claws are used for digging burrows and for digging out other animals' eggs. Its tongue helps it to hunt and to receive information about its surroundings by picking up the scents in the air. They also can store fat in their tails. This is very important to the survival of the Gila monster during times in which food supply is diminished, during hibernation and during pregnancy.


The Gila monster's habitat is one of foothills grasslands or desert scrub surrounded by palo verde trees and saguaros. They may also be found in valley washes.


The Gila monster can be found in western and southern Arizona, as far south as southern Sonora Mexico, extreme southeastern California, extreme southwestern Utah, southern Nevada, and southwestern New Mexico.

Wild Status

Gila monsters are quoted as being "Species not presently threatened, but may become so unless trade is regulated." The Gila Monster is not endangered. It is listed in Conservation on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Appendix II. CITES lists species that can become endangered. They were the first venomous animal in North America to get legal protection. This means that it is illegal to collect, kill, or sell them in Arizona.


In the wild Gila monsters eat small mammals, lizards, frogs, insects, carrion, birds and birds' eggs. They hunt primarily with their sense of taste and smell. As they grab their prey with their jaws venom flows into the bite wounds. Their venom attacks the nervous system of their prey.


Humans are the main predator of this species. Some people consider them to be prized possessions because they are not often seen in the wild. They have few other natural predators.


Gila Monster's generally escape the heat of the day by sheltering in abandoned burrows, under rocks or bushes, or in burrows that they have dug themselves.

Life Span

Gila monsters have lived over 35 years in captivity.


The Gila Monster is a stout-bodied lizard that grows 18 to 22.5 inches in length. They can weigh 3-5 lbs.

Extra Fun-facts

  • A component of Gila monster venom (Exendin-4) has been approved by the FDA to be used in a new drug called Byetta which helps in the treatment of type-2 diabetes.
  • The Tohono O'Odham and the Pima believed that Gila monsters possessed a spiritual power capable of causing sickness. The Apache believed that its very breath could bring death, the Seri and Yaqui believed in the healing powers of the lizard's hide.

 ASDM Logo  ©Copyright 2008, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum