Gila Monster

The Gila monster is a state-protected species. It is illegal to handle a Gila monster without authorization from NDOW. The exception to this regulation is when a Gila monster is posing a public safety threat and needs to be removed to avoid harm to humans. 

Gila monsters are the largest lizards native to the United States. At full size, Gilas can reach lengths up to two feet and weigh close to five pounds. They have a broad head, strong claws for digging, and a wide and short tail. A fat tail is an indication of a healthy lizard because they store fat reserves in their tails. Their beaded skin is black with patches of unique markings that can appear pink, orange, or yellow in color. The diet of this carnivorous lizard is made up of bird eggs, small reptiles, insects, and newborn mammals that are swallowed whole.

Gilas can be found in the deserts of the southwestern U.S. and in Northwest Mexico. In Nevada, they reside in the Mojave Desert. Gila monsters are elusive creatures, so it is very rare to spot one on the landscape. They spend most of their lives in underground burrows, typically only emerging to hunt and find mates. The lizards will enter brumation (similar to hibernation but for reptiles) November through March and are most often seen outside their burrows in the month of May.

Are Gila monsters dangerous?

Gila monsters are the only venomous lizards in North America. When a Gila bites, venom is secreted by glands in the lower jaw. Grooves in their sharp teeth allow the venom to seep through and mix with their saliva as they chew. A Gila monster bite is painful to humans but rarely deadly. They will only bite in self-defense when they feel threatened or cornered. A bite can be inflicted by a Gila monster only when an attempt is made to get close enough to pick one up. Gila monsters move slowly, relative to other lizards. However, their relatively slow locomotion should not be confused for a harmless lizard. Gila monsters can turn their head very quickly to inflict a bite, should a person or pet get close enough.

What should I do if I find a Gila monster?

If a Gila monster is found in the wild, leave it alone. It is illegal to handle or harm a Gila monster, unless it is posing a public safety threat, which in the wild, it is not. If a Gila monster is posing a public safety threat in a developed area, call the NDOW. If left alone, Gila monsters will leave an area where there are humans (usually after getting a drink from a pool or pond or eating a meal). If the Gila monster is unable to leave an area, placing a trash can over the Gila monster and keeping the trashcan in the shade until an NDOW warden responds to remove it is effective. Refer to the Department’s ‘Gila Monster Protocol’.

If you do come across a Gila monster please report the sighting to NDOW. If it is safe to do so, take coordinates and a photo from above to share with us at The banding patterns on their backs are unique and can be used by our biologists to identify individual lizards!

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