Whether they are venerated in Native American art or feared in the 1959 B-movie “The Giant Gila Monster,” gila monsters (Heloderma suspectum) have intrigued humans for many years. But whatever people know about these unique creatures, most are unaware that study of the reptile has improved many human lives.
A Mild Monster
Named for the Gila River in Arizona, the range of the Gila monster extends from the Mojave Desert in the U.S. down to the Sonoran Desert in northern Mexico. They prefer scrubland, oak woodland, and succulent desert habitats.
Known as “living fossils,” these reptiles have seen little evolutionary change over millions of years. Along with their close relative the beaded lizard, the two sub-species of Gila monster are the only venomous lizards in the U.S.
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The Gila monster secretes venomous saliva, which it transfers to victims through a very painful bite. Yet despite their sometimes formidable reputation, gila monsters aren’t “monsters” at all; the lizards eat eggs, small animals and other defenseless prey. There have been no recorded human fatalities from a gila monster bite.
Gila Monsters and Human Health
In the 1990s, scientists studying a southern Utah population of the reptiles split apart the compounds of Gila monster venom in order to isolate various properties and effects. Of these components, the peptide exendin-4 was found to moderate glucose levels and stimulate the slow, steady production of insulin, a process that aids digestion. Why? Because although gila monsters don’t eat often, when they do, they gorge on their food. And exendin-4 has incredible potential to benefit humans with Type-2 (adult-onset) diabetes.
After ten years of research and development, the rights to develop and market the drug were purchased for $325 million. The drug, marketed as “Byetta,” is used to treat some of the 17 million Type-2 diabetes patients in the U.S. alone.
In addition, a fragment of the exendin-4 peptide, called gilatide, has been found to strongly enhance memory in mice, suggesting tremendous potential for advances in the treatment of memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Interestingly, these compounds have not been found in any Gila monster population outside of southern Utah.
Threats in the Wild
Although roadkill, death by domestic pets and the pet trade all threaten wild Gila monster populations, the most looming threat to the southern Utah population is habitat loss due to urbanization.
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Washington County, Utah, is one of the fastest growing retirement communities in the country, and the fourth-fastest growing county in the U.S. The local Gila monster population has already reached the natural boundaries of its habitat, so there will be nowhere for the lizards to go if humans continue to destroy and fragment their habitat.
Currently, the IUCN Red List classifies the Gila monster as Near Threatened. However, that rating represents the entire Gila monster population, and doesn’t take into account higher threats on regional populations. Although venom from the southern Utah population has shown unique qualities and potential for human health, the group is not classified as a sub-species. As a result, there aren’t significant protective regulations in place.
Protect Now, Use Later
Amazing discoveries from such a small population of a single species reveal the enormous potential that nature at large has for human well-being in the future. This potential is known as option value, and it is one of CI’s top priorities. Twenty years ago, little was known about Gila monster venom, yet today its study has resulted in a drug that can improve the lives of millions of people.
Although pharmaceutical companies do much of their research with synthetic compounds in laboratories, all the substances they work with are found first in nature. Conserving the world’s diverse species for future research will ensure that we keep our options open.
In the words of Don Church, leader of the Biodiversity & Ecosystems Health team within CI’s Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, “Here’s a population of widespread animals, but this unique population is threatened. When you think about the number of species in the tropics where we focus our work, there’s a mind-boggling number of species that could have benefits to human health. It’s not just possible, it’s probable.”
All the more reason to take action for the environment now; in a few years, it may save your life.
READ MORE: Diversity in the Desert