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GILA MONSTER } Heloderma suspectum

RANGE: Southwestern United States and northern Mexico

STATUS: The Gila monster is listed as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

THREATS: Urban sprawl, habitat destruction, and the pet trade

The Gila monster has a fearsome reputation, but it’s mostly based on myths and half-truths. The Apache believed the breath of a Gila monster could kill a man, and the Tohono O’odham and Pima tribes believed it capable of causing sickness; even today, tall tales of Gila monsters spitting venom and leaping several feet into the air to attack are commonplace. But in reality, Gila monsters are more fascinating than formidable. They’re one of only two venomous reptiles found in North America, and the only species native to the United States. Though Gila monster venom is highly toxic, researchers believe it’s used more for defense than for hunting, and they’ve even discovered that the venom can be used to treat diabetes. Since these brightly colored reptiles move quite slowly, they pose little threat to humans.  Humans, on the other hand, are making survival tough for the Gila monster, thanks to urban encroachment, ensuing habitat destruction, and illegal collection for the pet trade.

Photo © Robin Silver