Gila monsters, like this one along an area trail, pose little risk to those fortunate to see one, but they are poisonous.

Right now is one of the best times of the year to catch a glimpse of a monster roaming the desert.

Gila monsters - hefty, venomous, but generally not aggressive lizards - come out of their burrows in the spring in search of chow and lizard love.

"It's breeding season, so they're out and moving around," said Bob Brandner of the Tucson Herpetological Society. "We've seen several of them at Saguaro National Park" this spring.

Russ Solsky, reptile keeper at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, said the months of spring and the summer monsoon offer rare opportunities to see a Gila monster in the wild.

"Few people see them because they spend up to 95 percent of their lives in underground burrows," Solsky said. "But now is a time you just might see one."

Brandner and Solsky provided a short course on appreciating our desert's resident monsters - and avoiding dangerous encounters.


You're not likely to overlook a Gila monster if one crosses your path.

These critters are on the chunky side, with big heads and thick tails.

Adults run 12 to 18 inches in length - but some reach, well, monstrous sizes.

"The state record for a Gila monster in Arizona is 22 and a quarter inches long," Solsky said. "That was like the Shaquille O'Neal of Gila monsters."

If the size doesn't get your attention, the animal's colors might. Hues of pink and orange are set off against background shades of dark brown and black.

The Gila monster's menu items run from birds' eggs to baby mice and pack rats.

Spring mating leads to the laying of four to six eggs by females during the summer - with incubation taking about five months.


For all their size and fearsome name, Gila monsters "are really harmless animals if you just leave them alone," Brandner said. "They will not attack unless you're trying to kill or molest them."

Even if a person approaches a Gila monster, the animal typically gives a warning.

"Their defensive posture, when they choose to stand their ground, is to open the mouth and hiss and sway the head from side to side," Solsky said.

Now and then someone is bitten. Usually it's a result of molesting or picking up a Gila monster, but a few people get bitten by inadvertently reaching under a rock or a porch where one of the lizards is taking shelter.


Gila monsters - unlike rattlesnakes, which strike quickly - hang onto their victims and "chew" venom into the wound.

The key is to pry the animal off as quickly as possible to stop the delivery of venom - and then get to a medical facility. Bites can be extremely painful, but it's very uncommon for a person to die from a bite.

"The last documented fatality we know of from a Gila monster was in 1915," Solsky said.

Did you know?

The Gila monster apparently was named for sightings near the Gila River - and because its appearance brought to mind a monster.

Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at or at 573-4192.