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What Do Gila Monsters Eat?

Written by Emily Wolfel
Published: September 28, 2022
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Key Points

  • Gila monsters are one of the only venomous lizards in the world, though their venom rarely causes any serious effects in humans.
  • They are large, lazy carnivores who live in the desert areas of Mexico. Because they are so lethargic and slow-moving, they hunt by either sneaking up on their prey or by targeting eggs and newborn animals who can’t get away.
  • Though Gila monsters aren’t strong hunters and tend to go for easy prey, they will eat a variety of small animals and insects when the opportunity presents itself.

The Gila monster is a large, scaly lizard with beady eyes and a patterned hide. It is native to the desert and semi-desert areas in the United States, though it can be found in Mexico’s deserts as well. Surprisingly, it is one of the world’s only venomous lizards!

So what do Gila monsters eat? Is their venom dangerous to humans? Keep reading to find the answers to these questions and more!

What Do Gila Monsters Eat?

Gila monsters are carnivores who primarily eat eggs and nestlings (newborn mammals), though they will eat a variety of other smaller animals, insects, and carrion as well. Since they are slow-moving and mostly blind, they avoid confronting any prey that is large enough to put up much of a fight.

A Complete List of Foods that Gila Monsters Eat

Here is a complete list of the nine foods that Gila monsters have been known to eat:

  • Eggs
  • Rabbits
  • Kangaroo rats
  • Lizards
  • Frogs
  • Insects
  • Centipedes
  • Worms
  • Carrion

Considering that this solitary reptile tends to live in hot desert environments, they will eat whatever mammal is at their disposal — they are not picky predators. While eggs and small mammals are often their main source of energy, they will also eat carrion (rotting carcasses). Usually, scavenger animals (like vultures) feed on carrion, but opportunistic carnivores like Gila monsters will not shy away from this source of energy.

How Much Do Gila Monsters Eat?

Gila monsters eat as much as they can once they hunt their meal. Gila monsters don’t eat many times per year, which is why they consume so much food every chance they get. Since they go months without eating, they will eat up to a third of their body weight in order to maintain their fat and energy stores.

These stores are important for the periods of time that Gila monsters will not be able to find food — especially the cold, bitter winters and the hot, dry summers. It’s similar to a bear storing fat in order to hibernate for the winter. In the case of Gila monsters, these reptiles often store fat in their tails, though they can also store fat near their abdomen.

During the brutal winter months, Gila monsters tend to stay within their burrows in rocky foothills. They don’t come out to hunt during this time so they survive entirely off of their stored fat. Once spring rolls around, they come back out to hunt.

How Do Gila Monsters Hunt?

Gila monsters hunt by using their sense of smell and taste since their beady eyes don’t see very well. They use their forked tongues to taste the scents of their prey in the air. Since they can only move at 1.5 miles per hour, they need to be very stealthy to sneak up on their prey before they run away.

Once they pinpoint their prey, they use their jaws to deliver a nasty bite and latch onto their prey. Their small teeth contain tiny grooves in them, which allows Gila monsters to maintain a firm grip on the animal. Since they do not have fangs, they use their teeth to chew the venom in. Venom seeps into these bite wounds to paralyze and kill their prey.  The venom directly targets the prey’s nervous system.

If they are hunting for eggs, they will use different hunting techniques. Many animals bury their eggs underground so the Gila monster will use their sharp claws to search for and retrieve these eggs. Other animals store their eggs in nests high up off the ground — in cacti, for example. Gila monsters have no issue climbing these plants to retrieve prey eggs.

Gila monsters don’t chew their food at all. Instead, they swallow their prey whole! When it comes to eggs, their tactics are a little different. They will use their teeth to crack open the egg.

What Do Juvenile Gila Monsters Eat?

Young gila monsters eat much of the same diet as their adult counterparts, which includes eggs and small mammals. Since these young reptiles are not as large, however, they cannot eat bigger prey. According to the Biology of Gila Monsters and Beaded Lizards by Daniel David Beck, these youngsters will settle for smaller mammals and the eggs of smaller birds.

Are Gila Monsters Dangerous to Humans?

No, Gila monsters are generally not dangerous to humans. They are rarely spotted in the wild so you are unlikely to encounter these reptiles. These creatures also tend to avoid humans and larger animals, and they do their best to scare predators off with an open-mouthed hiss.

Gila monsters usually don’t want to be found either. One of their protective mechanisms is actually their patterned hide, which serves as camouflage while they hunt. They tend to avoid open areas, and instead stick to rocky hills.

If you do happen to get bitten by a Gila monster, have no fear. While their bite is painful, their venom usually isn’t potent enough to kill humans.

Humans tend to be more dangerous to Gila monsters since many will hunt these reptiles.

What Eats Gila Monsters?

Gila monsters have very few natural predators, but larger carnivores, like badgers, birds of prey, and coyotes, are known to feast on Gila monsters.

What to Feed Gila Monsters as Pets

Yes, it is legal to own Gila monsters in certain places! Much of the time, it is illegal to own a Gila monster that has been born and raised in the wild. Instead, certain places may only allow you to own this reptile if it has been raised in captivity.

While it’s possible to own one of these creatures, they take a great deal of work and care. You must handle them with tough leather gloves since their bite can be vicious. They also require lots of heat and space as they are a large, cold-blooded animal.

Gila monsters may eat a variety of animals in the wild, but in captivity, pet owners often feed them mice, rats, and occasionally eggs. Use eggs in their diet sparingly.

GIla monster pet owners should be careful not to overfeed their reptiles since overfeeding can easily lead to obesity. Remember that these reptiles are designed to eat as much as they can and store fat! For this reason, you should only be feeding your pet every two weeks.

Up Next…

Ready for more? Check out these great resources next!

Monitor Lizard vs. Gila monster: What Are the Differences? – Discover key facts about the monitor lizard and Gila monster.

10 Incredible Gila Monster Facts – Find out the 10 must-know facts about Gila monsters!

Gila Monster Teeth: Do Gila Monsters Have Teeth? – Learn more about Gila monsters’ teeth and how they use them to catch prey.

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What Do Gila Monsters Eat?

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About the Author

Emily is an editor and content marketing specialist of five years. She grew up in rural Pennsylvania where you can regularly encounter anything from elk to black bears to river otters. Over the years, she raised livestock animals, small animals, dogs, cats, and birds, which is where she learned most of what she knows about various animals and what allowed her to work as a dog groomer and manager of a specialty pet store. She now has three rescue cats and two high-needs Pomeranian mixes to take up her love and attention.

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