Have you met Rex and Rosie the Gila monsters? Urban myths perpetuate the notion that these handsome lizards lurk in the desert waiting to attack unsuspecting humans. Not true! Gila monsters are not aggressive and prefer to avoid people. In fact, they spend almost 95% of their lives in their burrows.
These are large lizards, 18-22 inches in length and weighing up to 5 pounds. Small individual bones within their scales provide armor-like protection and a beaded appearance. Gila monsters are venomous and should not be messed with. They have super strong jaws and use their flickering tongues to taste the air for scents.
A slow metabolism allows the Gila monster to go a whole year with only 5 to 10 meals. When they do eat, the lizards consume up to 30% of their body weight. Food energy is stored for the long haul in the lizard’s large tail. Gila monsters eat small mammals, birds and eggs.
The desert tortoise Grandpa is a real charmer and makes friends everywhere he goes. He builds his fan base with monthly trips with the rest of the reptile entourage to the Verde Canyon Railroad station in Clarkdale. Delighted visitors watch him lumber about a grassy enclosure, apparently enjoying the attention.
Not many will see a desert tortoise in the wild, yet these gentle creatures live and thrive in the dry rocky habitats of the Sonoran Desert. Tortoises hibernate in shallow burrows in the winter and plod about the desert from May through October, eating plants and searching for mates.
Snakes often provoke intense reactions from people. Yet these critters have many fascinating adaptations. Enduring myths are dispelled as people marvel at how beautiful and well-designed snakes are for their roles in the desert habitat.
Liberty educators fascinate listeners with discussions of anatomy and senses. A snake’s exterior is made up of scales formed from keratin, the same material that makes our hair and fingernails. His tough keratin scales protect him from rough ground. Snakes have ribs that spring from vertebrae along the backbone, which may stretch 400 vertebrae long.
Snakes are normally cautious and defensive. With only an inner ear, they “hear” by sensing vibrations, both airborne and earthborne. Snakes have lidless eyes, located on the sides of their heads, and don’t see sharp images. They smell by use of a Jacobson’s organ located on the roof of the mouth. The snake’s constantly flicking tongue samples the earth, air and water, and carries bits of each to this organ that translates the information to a sense of smell.
Liberty’s gopher snake Yang is 16 years old. Gopher snakes help the environment by keeping rodent populations in check. They burrow and climb. A threatened gopher snake coils and triangulates its head to look like a rattlesnake. Even though the gopher snake is harmless, it trades on the reputation of its venomous relative by shaking its tail in dry leaves and stones to make a rattle-like sound.
Juanita is a king snake. She was donated to Liberty in 2000. King snakes are famous for eating rattlesnakes, copperheads and coral snakes. They are immune to the toxins of these venomous species. They also eat small mammals, birds, lizards and frogs.
Joya is a beautiful subspecies of king snake called a Sinaloan milk snake. She was rescued in Chandler in 2007. This species is very secretive, non-venomous, and eats a large number of rodents.
When snakes are taken to classrooms, the children are given the opportunity to line up and walk past the handler carefully cradling the snake. They can touch the snake’s skin if they like. Most do. This exposure to often misunderstood animals provides an opportunity for learning and hopefully sparks an interest that inspires the students throughout life.