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Gila monster sightings increase in St. George



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ST. GEORGE -- There are monsters in Utah, and if you don't watch out, one of them may sneak up on you in St. George. But experts say their dangerous reputation is a bit overrated.

The monster recently invaded southern Utah was a Gila monster. They're rarely seen in the state, but this one walked up to a clothing store in St. George and scared some landscapers.

"Unrealistically [scared them], I guess. I mean, they're only aggressive if you poke at them," said Patrick Emblidge, biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Emblidge is working on a masters degree in Gila monsters, so he's a fan. But he doesn't deny their venom packs a punch that's both bad and good. He says a bite results in extreme pain and increased memory function.

Improved trivia skills and a treatment for diabetes developed from their venom. "They make it synthetically now, but it's really an incredible symbol of the value of bio-diversity," Emblidge said.

But let's get real: they're called Gila monsters because they're dangerous, right?

"There's very, very few confirmed human fatalities. And the most recent one was like 50, 60 years ago. It was an old drunk guy poking at a Gila monster, so it bit him," Emblidge said.

They are elusive, rarely seen; preferring to hide under rocks. "Populations have seemed to decrease pretty dramatically in the last 20 to 30 years," Emblidge said.

Ironically, people are seeing them more and more in St. George. "The houses are sprawling out into really good habitat and kind of displacing a lot of the Gila monsters that were already there," Emblidge explained.

If you insist on being scared of them, here's a fact that will help: Emblidge says one meal can be up to one-third of their body mass. It's like a 100-pound person eating a 33-pound meal in one sitting.

But here's the reassuring part: They don't eat three square meals a day. It's more like three a year.

The Gila monster captured at the clothing store was released into the wild at the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.

E-mail: jhollenhorst@ksl.com

John Hollenhorst

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