All About Gila Monsters and How to Sketch Them!

The Gila Monster is named after the Gila River in New Mexico; one of the states in the southwestern deserts where this largest lizard of the United States lives. It grows up to 2 feet long and 4 pounds and can live over 20 years!

This species has the unique distinction of being the world’s only venomous lizard. You may think that the Komodo Dragon wins this title, but no, it’s not truly venomous, though its bacteria-infested saliva can indeed be deadly. The Gila Monster bears a neurotoxin in its saliva created by glands in the lower jaw and it uses this toxin as a potent weapon in subduing its prey. Its diet is wide, enjoying everything from eggs, nestlings, rodents, frogs, insects, worms, other lizards, and even carrion.

gila monster hissing

Many species of lizards inhabit North American deserts alongside the Gila Monster, such as alligator lizards, legless lizards, collared lizards, geckos, chuckwallas, horned lizards, anoles, and skinks to name just a few.  The Gila Monster is classified in its own family and only includes the Mexican Beaded Lizard as a close relative. Both species are listed by the IUCN Red List as declining in their ranges, with the Gila Monster deemed ‘near threatened’.

Mexican Beaded Lizards at the Buffalo Zoo


These lizards spend much of the year deep in an underground burrow, usually stolen from a rodent, and emerge in the spring to mate, lay eggs, and search for food. The Gila Monster can eat up to 30% of its body weight at once and it stores fat in its tail as an emergency energy source when the weather is too cold or too hot for hunting. Amazingly, this lizard can go months without eating, living off the energy reserves in its tail and reducing its metabolism when resting.

gila monster postage stamp

Their bright red and black coloration serves as a warning to would-be predators that their bite is venomous and their uniquely beaded skin is composed of scales embedded with tiny bones called osteoderms.

gila monster crawling

Watch the Gila Monster Workshop

If you’d like to learn much more about Gila Monster biology, ecology, and anatomy, I suggest you watch the recording of my live online workshop below.
First, you’ll want to gather some paper, sketching pencils, and also download the Gila Monster image as seen in the video. You may want to skip the introduction and start at the 6:00-minute mark to jump right into the subject of Gila Monster biology!