When a large, carrion eating venomous lizard isn’t all bad

Posted: March 10, 2014 in Reptile

 

Wow, what a poorly run blog this is turning out to be. It turns out that doing a PhD does, on occasion, require me to actually do some work, and this, coupled with my other time commitments of pretending to have a social life, weeping in terror at the sure and certain knowledge that one day every single one of Man’s accomplishments will be eroded and forgotten by the unstoppable march of time and finally trying to make good on certain rash promises involving uranium and rocketry I made to a certain leader of a certain country, means that I kind of forgot about updating this blog.

 

So sorry about that.

 

And sorry to His Supreme Majestic Imperial Excellency General Secretary Marshal too. It turns out designing an ICBM is not, as it turns out, one of those ‘make it up as you go along’ things, which explains why half the capital is now a large, smoking hole in the ground.

 

On the plus side, he now has a nice ‘fission hole’. Geddit? Geddit? Also, the CIA is now after him.

Anyway, the Creature Feature this week is all about the Gila Monster, which is to lethally venomous animals what this blog is to regular updates.

 

As in, it promises a lot, but then fails to deliver.

 

Living in the southern United States and Northern Mexico, the Gila Monster, or Helodermum suspecta, is about two feet long, weighs about two kilograms and has a curious, mottled skin colouration consisting of black and yellow bands. It is a pretty big animal, in other words, although perhaps not quite deserving of the title ‘monster’ and it appears to spend much of its time underground, much like the purely civilian and innocent construction projects of His Excellency.

Gila monsters hide from the harsh glare of the sun, in much the same way as illegal refining facilities hide from the harsh glare of NRO spy satellites.

 

Feeding mostly on carrion, small animals and eggs, it has an eggcellent (hahahah -sorry, moving on) sense of smell, able to track the path of an egg which has been rolled along the floor, or sniff out a nest buried 15cm deep. As a result, it has thick, muscular legs and long claws, allowing it to dig out and devour eggs, and also allows them to climb trees and cacti in search of food. Whilst larger food is crushed to death before ingestion, the Gila monster can simply swallow smaller prey whole, which is a pretty nasty way to go; being digested alive in the stomach acids of a stinking reptile. They feed fairly irregularly (less than ten times a year) but when they do eat, they binge eat, sometimes eating as much as a third of their body-weight in one sitting, a feat only previously matched by PhD students at a free buffet. Unlike most PhD students, or indeed desert animals for that matter, they need to drink water to maintain water levels inside their body, so they are highly active on those rare occasions in the American deserts when it rains and hibernate for the rest of the time.

 

So, we’ve got a fairly large, exceptionally ugly lizard which spends most of its time lurking underground, with a good sense of smell and, presumably due to its lack of regular meals, a constant, ravenous hunger. Just to make things better, it has a venomous bite.

 

Luckily, this bite is a bit pathetic. The lizard lacks the muscles needed to actually, y’know, inject the venom, meaning it basically has to chew it into your body. Whilst this is undoubtedly painful, this does reduce the mortality rate – indeed, in 30% of cases no venom is injected at all (http://www.herpetology.com/helobite.txt). The bite is apparently rather forceful, and sometimes you need either a set of pliers or a lit match to prise the lizard’s jaw open and persuade it to let go. The venom itself is rather toxic – indeed, the LD50 required to kill a mice when injected is considerably less than that for some rattlesnakes. However, due to the rather inefficient delivery mechanism, the Gila Monster is far less likely to kill you. One doctor in 1899 mentioned he had never had to attend a case of Gila Monster envenomation, and more to the point thought that anyone fool enough to get bitten by one ought to die, which does seem a tad harsh. We’d hate to see his approach to any injury actually accidentally self inflicted. He’d probably want to burn the affected limb off with kerosene whilst quoting Darwin at you or something.

 

We have no evidence he actually looked like this, and yet we are certain he did. His patients were too scared of him to get sick, or bitten.

 

The venom contains a whole cocktail of proteins and peptides of various effects (for a full list, see the link above), but which can cause a burning pain, sweating, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhoea, weakness or difficulty moving, difficulty breathing, shock and in some rare cases kidney or heart problems. One, horridum, causes internal haemorrhaging and bulging of the eyes. Despite this mixture of unpleasant effects, treatment beyond painkilling and bed rest is not normally needed. There is not record of an actual death since 1939 due to Gila Monster bite; and many of those before this point are thought to be more down to the medical technology of the day, which probably boiled down, more or less, to “rusty hacksaw and a slug of whiskey (for the doctor)”. Curiously, components of their venom have been shown to be potentially useful in treating lung cancer (Maruno and Said 1993), diabetes (Bond 2006) and dementia (Perry et al 2002). It has even been shown to reduce food cravings in rats (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120515165405.htm), making this lizard more beneficial than, and almost certainly less dangerous than, most fad diets (fad diets unnamed because their makers can afford good lawyers).

Pictured: A better source of dieting help than most bestsellers. (Pic credit: Cameron Rognan)

 

So there you have it. Hooray for Gila Monsters!

 

 

 

 

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