Gila Monsters in the
Sonoran Desert of Arizona

I’m an author and wildlife videographer who is fortunate to live next to some pristine wild desert managed by the Bureau of Land Management in northwestern Pinal County, Arizona. It’s about 50 miles southwest of Phoenix and east of the Maricopa Mountains Wilderness in the Sonoran Desert National Monument. So my home is a diverse and ecologically rich wildlife corridor to those areas and a significant xeroriparian habitat, as it includes a major portion of the Vekol Wash.

Each year in the spring and early summer, we are blessed
with at least 2-3 Gila Monster sightings on and around our 4 acre ranchette. In the year 2007, however, we had 5 sightings in 7 weeks -– all within the same square mile area or less. I documented each sighting with photos and video except for one. By comparing the stills it was determined that two were the same animal, and the other two were different individuals. Scientists say that such frequent sightings are rare, so that leads me to believe that a healthier than normal population flourishes here. In the first decade of the new millennium, we saw a dramatic rise in illegal off-road vehicle use, due in part to suburban sprawl from Phoenix spilling over in this direction. The resulting damage was documented extensively in a blog dedicated to the issue. Working with the Pinal County Sheriff & development department, Arizona Game & Fish, and the BLM addressing this problem with little or no resources, some progress was made to stem the flow, but not as much as desired. Arizona Game and Fish put up signs, but they are largely ignored. Desert tortoise and several burrows were documented in the area multiple times, twice captured on video. Those sightings in addition to the sightings of the Gila Monsters are within 30-100 feet of illegally made ORV tracks.

Here is a brief summary of Gila Monster sightings to date:

First lizard of the 2007 season was sighted in my backyard
the morning of April 29th:

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It is the subject of one of my best Gila Monster videos – Gila Monster in the Wild (over 46,273 hits on YouTube alone so far, albeit without music.) The lizard was walking among the creosote bushes and finally went into a burrow, which I marked. In the past few years, I’ve seen other burrows on our property used by monsters but not this particular one. I believe these burrows for the most part were initially dug by our prolific round-tailed ground squirrels. This also my most celebrated sighting because she reappears in 20

Second sighting was on May 10, 2007, early morning. Unfortunately, my camera battery was dead so I was unable
to get this one on record. This lizard was sighted almost exactly where I’d sighted one the previous year – crossing the dirt access road just north of the Vekol Wash.

Third and fourth sighting took place on the same day
within an hour of each other -- May 17, 2007, also in the morning. The first lizard was on the BLM land about 120 feet from our property and less than 200 feet from where the 1st monster was sighted.

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This monster stayed under the creosote bushes mostly, perhaps because there were hawks overhead. In any event, we got them all on the same video which was pretty cool -- Gila Monster vs. Hawks. After this same monster reappeared 25 days later, I named it “Glow” for identification purposes. The second lizard of the day, “Traveler,” was sighted on our property, less than 400 feet from where this first monster was sighted.

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I tracked it for a while, and it was heading right towards where the other lizard was, but then veered off to the northeast and disappeared into a dense bush on the south bank of the Vekol Wash. This monster is the star of my Gila Monster’s Journey video. Were these monsters rival males or a courting pair perhaps? In any event, I got the second one on video crossing the road twice. This video has descriptive narration with lots of interesting facts about Gila Monsters.

The fifth and final sighting of the 2007 season took place on June 12th at dusk. This lizard was crossing the front side of our property going northwest toward the BLM land. You can tell it is Glow by the head markings.

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Glow was headed in the same direction where he or she was sighted exactly 25 days earlier. I don’t know if Glow went back to that same burrow, however, because she or he parked under a creosote bush on our property and didn’t leave until well after dark. So I made a second video of Glow called Gila Monster Returns (with music.) At the end of this video, you can see the dust cloud and hear the engines of some ORVs in the distance. This monster was less than 30 feet from a dirt road that the ORVs regularly use to get back to the BLM land.

Season 2008 did not begin as promising but fortune suddenly turned as soon as the Monsoons arrived. On the early morning of July 21st, I was hiking in the Vekol Wash when I suddenly saw a gorgeous Gila Monster crossing up ahead. Of course by the time I got close enough to get some decent video it had scrambled underneath some flood debris on a vegetated island in the middle of the wash. I just sat down with my cameras and patiently waited for it to reappear.

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I named this lizard “Texas”. I don’t know why. I’m from Texas and was thinking about Texas when I saw it so there. This beautiful creature stars in my video Texas the Gila Monster. Then a few days later I spotted another Gila Monster less than a half mile west from where Texas was, also in the Vekol Wash. Got a little video of that one scrambling into the brush but no good photos. Then on the evening of August 21, 2008, I was pleasantly surprised to find a Gila Monster right outside my door around 10:00 p.m.! I’d let the dogs out to go do their business one final time, and there it was by my bottom door step. Fortunately, they didn’t see it and I was able to round them up and get them back inside before they did. Then I grabbed my video camera, an extra flashlight, and proceeded to film her for over an hour. I named her Viva because of the markings on her head -- looked like a V. She is the star of my video, Viva the Night for Gila Monster Lovers. This is a great video -- lots of close ups and fascinating information about the new treatment for diabetes derived from their venom -- all to the awesome sounds of the musical trio Triplexity.

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Season 2009: Three sightings all in May. First one was smaller than most I’ve seen so it was probably a juvenile. Our dog spotted it under a creosote bush around 8:30 pm on May 9th in our backyard. It headed west underneath the fence toward the BLM land. Unfortunately I did not get much footage because it was dark and my flashlight batteries were dim. Just two days later on May 11th, my neighbor spotted one around 8:45 am crossing the road in front of her house. When she sent me the picture I thought it looked familiar. Sure enough, after I compared it with mine, it was Viva -- the gorgeous girl who visited me last year at night! I was so excited and glad to hear she was still around, so I did a video called, Gila Monster Update: Viva Returns! With Babies?

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Then five days later (May 16, 2009 around 7:45 pm) my neighbor spotted another one -- a tiny baby at her mailbox. She didn’t have her camera with her but watched it wiggle across the road on to our property. Perhaps Viva was the mother! After monsoon hit in July, I’ve seen gila monster tracks in the Vekol Wash, but haven’t been fortunate to see any roaming around. I haven’t been out this year as much as last year though.

In 2009, I was diagnosed with a rare, incurable but nonfatal disease (primary lateral sclerosis or “PLS”) which limits my mobility considerably. Nevertheless, I was very fortunate to catch “Happy” in my duck’s pen in the late afternoon on June 2, 2010. The marking on top of his head resembled an “H”, plus, I was so happy because it had been well over a year since I’d seen a gila monster. This lizard is probably male because of his slender neck. Something had been taking huge bites out of our duck’s eggs, so I assumed it was him. He was smaller than the other lizards, and I followed him around the pen with my video camera as he looked for a way out. He is the star of my video entitled
Gila Monster “vs.” Duck.

gila monster, duck, vs. eggs


gila monster, duck, eggs, vs.


gila monster, duck, egg, vs.

2011 and 2012 passed with no sightings, probably as a result of my inability to get out as much I did before than anything. But then a miracle occurred on the morning of May 8, 2013. A very old friend dropped by -- NUMBER ONE -- my very first documented gila monster sighting from 2007, meaning she had to be at least 6 years or older! I took 2 head shots and compared them side by side to make sure they were the same markings, and they were! I caught her in the act eating a duck egg and the whole ordeal is caught on video -- my duck’s reaction and more! I think it’s my best video yet as it shows how docile these lizards can be if left alone. It is called Duck Catches Gila Monster in the Act.


gila monster eating egg



duck watches gila monster



second appearance of 6 year old gila monster


gila monster walking


It was almost one year later on a fine, crisp, April morning in 2014 that I had my last sighting to date. I named this one “Slipper” because before I could get any decent footage, he slipped into a burrow behind a yellow barrel cactus that I had forgotten was there. Still, you can see him briefly in the video I made to mark the return of spring in the Sonoran Desert that year: Baby Quail, Gila Monster, and Ground Squirrels.

slipper the gila monster by yellow barrel cactus

The Gila Monster is a threatened species in Arizona and it is unlawful to harass or harm them. But this is precisely what the ORVs do. I’m very careful when I video these guys – frequently using zoom and staying pretty far back when they’re walking so as to influence them as little as possible. I’m proud to say that none of them have appeared bothered enough to hiss at me while I was filming. Same thing with most rattlesnakes I rescue from my dogs and set free: see Rattlesnake (Mohave) in the Wild. It rattled at my dogs, but not at me. Don’t worry -- I stayed well out of striking distance!

gila monster in the wild


For more photos of these gorgeous critters and the video playlist, please visit the links in the sidebar above. Here are some great places to learn all about Gila Monsters:

http://www.desertmuseum.org/books/nhsd_gila.php
http://www.desertusa.com/sep97/du_gilamonster.html
http://www.blueplanetbiomes.org/banded_gila_monster.htm
http://www.drseward.com/


Would you like to see a Gila Monster in your yard but don’t live in the desert? Then go here:

http://www.monsterinmygarden.com

ATTENTION HERPETOLOGISTS AND
REPTILE EXPERTS:

If you have any idea about what may be going on here, I'd love your feedback on it. Why am I seeing so many of these gorgeous lizards when such sightings are supposed to be extremely rare? Any recommendations for further research?

A HERPETOLOGIST RESPONDS

July 22, 2009

Your Name: Jackson Shedd

Subject: Gila Monsters

Message: Dear Judy,

I'm a herpetologist and stumbled across you Gila monster video on youtube.com. I ended up perusing your website out of curiosity and a passion for desert lizards. I saw your question at the end of your Gila page regarding the supposed rarity of such observations as yours and why you're seeing so many. I figured that since your question is still up, perhaps it hasn't been answered! So, here's an answer for you: Gila monsters actually typically spend up to 95% of their time underground and perhaps because of this behavior, are often regarded as "rare" even by locals in Arizona. This is a misconception. During April and May, they spend much more time above ground and this appears to be the period when you've made most of your observations. You also appear to live in relatively undisturbed habitat out by the Haley Hills which also increases the chances of observation. They exhibit a second peak of activity with the monsoons in July and August, as Helodermatid lizards respond to and require high levels of humidity. Although Gila monsters are also distributed in parts of CA, NV, UT, and NM, AZ is their stronghold in the U.S. and is the place most people go to see them in the wild. Their true rarity, or least rarity of observations, seems to be in regions such as the Mojave Desert in the limited places where they are known to occur in CA and NV.

Hope that helps,

Jackson

IT DOES. THANKS JACKSON!



Please visit the WAYWARDMUSE Channel
for more Sonoran Desert wildlife videos. Thanks !

May what is discovered here benefit all beings...