Gila Monster on the Porch

By Dan Weisz

I was on the computer in our “study” one recent morning when I realized that a quail was making incessant alarm calls from just outside the window.  I looked out to see a Gambel’s Quail and a White-winged Dove on the front porch each about two feet from a Gila Monster.  The Gila Monster was not moving at that time. My response, of course, was to run to the kitchen to get my camera, change the lens quickly, and bolt out of the front door (looking where I stepped first).

My wife pointed out the Gila Monster who had moved behind one of our pots.  The Gila Monster and I considered each other for a bit.

Once he felt safe enough he began to move along the wall, keeping an eye on me.  Those bead-like scales on its skin are actually small bony structures called osteoderms.  The orange color is thought to warn predators away.  The mottled color pattern and bumps are very pretty.  By the way, you can tell that I had crouched down to eye-level to get a better angle for this portrait.

The Gila Monster ’smells’ with its tongue.  Much as snakes do, the Gila Monster uses its tongue to capture scent particles in the air and then brings them into its mouth to what is known as its Jacobson’s organ (on the roof of its mouth) for chemical analysis.  I would guess that this Gila Monster may not have eaten all winter and was out and about looking for a good meal. Gila monsters spend 90-95% of their lives underground and emerge in the spring to eat and find a mate.

The cinderblocks in my house are 16” long, so this Gila Monster is perhaps 19” long, which is a good size for a Gila Monster.  The tail is where it stores fat and the Gila Monster can go months without food.  When it walks it keeps its tail in the air swinging it from side to side to help maintain balance.  Gila’s top “running” speed is perhaps 1 mile per hour.

It finally reached the end of our porch and headed towards the rocks in search of food.

The next two photos captured it making its way quickly through the jumble of rocks in search of prey.  A Gila Monster primarily feeds on bird and reptile eggs and when it does eat, it may consume up to one-third of its body weight.

If this fellow is successful at finding a big meal, it may not eat again for many more weeks.  And by the way, while it was clamoring down the rocks, the Gambel’s Quail had moved to a dead tree snag about twenty feet away but it continued to make its alarm call until the Gila Monster from sight disappeared inside the rocky maze.

And, Yes, Gila Monsters are a venomous lizard-the only one in the United States.  But the greatest predator to Gila Monsters are Human Beings.

Many of you in the Foothills may have seen a Gila Monster in your yard. Consider yourself lucky and hope you can see it again some time in the near future.

To learn a bit more about Gila Monsters, go to the Desert Museum’s fact sheet: 

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