The first official sighting of the shy Gila monster occurred in Arizona’s Gila River basin. It prefers hot, dry climates including the Mojave Desert, the Sonoran Desert, and the Chihuahuan Desert. This particular lizard spends approximately 95% of its time tucked into an underground cave and is nocturnal so spotting one while hiking in the desert is quite unusual.
The Gila monster is the largest native U.S. lizard. Its heavy body features short legs, a thick body, and a short, incredibly fat tail. Healthy Gila monsters grow until they’re approximately 20 inches from nose to tail and weigh in at about 4 pounds. Brilliantly colored, bead-like scales, called osteoderms, and that have a color range that includes pink, yellow, bright black, and orange patterns cover the lizard’s entire body.
Unlike many lizards that zip along at a pretty good clip (the spiny-tailed ignuana can reach 21mph,) the Gila monster is slow. Incredibly slow. While walking, their top speed is an estimated 1mph. Rather than chasing down their pray, which includes birds, mice and other small animals. They’re also very fond of eggs and will frequently climb a cactus and raid a bird’s nest.
Between their colorful appearance and slow movements, it’s difficult to avoid the temptation of picking up a Gila monster if you’re lucky enough to spot one in the wild. This is a bad idea. Gila monsters have the distinction of being one of just two lizards that produce venom. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, no human has ever died because of a Gila monster’s bite, but you will experience excruciating pain while you wait for the poison to dissipate.
Gila Monster Venom
Its slow speed makes it impossible for the Gila monster to chase after prey. Its survival depends on it’s ability to quickly immobilize whatever prey walks past the lizard’s hiding place. It does this by biting down hard on the bird or mouse. The jaws lock on and hold tight for several long minutes, during which, venom travels through long grooves in the lower teeth and into the prey’s blood stream. Sometimes the Gila monster will even chew on its prey, presumably to shorten the time it takes for the venom to impact the mouse or bird. Once the animal dies, the Gila monster swallows it whole.
The entire system for bringing down prey and the resemblance the venom and delivery process bears to venomous snakes has prompted researchers to hypothesis that both the Gila Monster and the Mexican Beaded Lizard share a close evolutionary link with snakes.
How Gila Monster Venom Helps Diabetics
It’s my understanding that research into Gila monster venom originally started because a handful of researchers were curious as to why humans experienced such intense pain after the lizard bit them. When the researchers analyzed the venom, they discovered it contained exenatide-4 which is very similar to a human peptide, glucagon-like peptide-1 analog (GLP-1.)
In a person who hasn’t been diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, GLP-1 aids in the production of insulin whenever the individuals blood pressure starts climbing. This is important since the insulin is responsible for taking stored sugar from the fat cells and using it for energy. In addition to helping those with Type 2 diabetes properly use their fat stores, the exenatide-4 found in the Gila monster venom decreases the length of time it takes to digest meals, which means the individual doesn’t feel hungry as often, which helps them maintain a healthier weight. While it’s possible to inject GLP-1 into the system and therefore help regulate the blood sugar level. The problem with they system is that GLP-1 doesn’t last long once it enters the system. In order for the person to get the help needed, they’d need another injection approximately once every hour. Exenatide-4 doesn’t break down as quickly, which means significantly fewer shots, lowering the risk of infection while improving overall quality of life.
At this point it’s not advised that anyone who hasn’t been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes should use exenatide-4 for weight loss. However, there are some who feel that as the scientific community learns more about Gila monster venom and exenatide-4, they will learn how to use exenatide-4 to help people overcome eating addictions, enabling them to lose weight. Some wonder if it might not prove to be a key to aiding those with alcohol, tobacco, and other drug addictions.
Researchers believe that the Gila monster relies on the exenatide-4 found in their system to help them regulate their metabolism, allowing them to go a very long time between meals.
Research and clinical trials revealed that in addition to helping those with type 2 diabetes better regulate their appetite, the exenatide-4 also sustain a healthier blood sugar level.
Exenatide-4 is marketed as Byetta.