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Concept: Heloderma


Varanidae is a clade of tiny (<20 mm pre-caudal length [PCL]) to giant (>600 mm PCL) lizards first appearing in the Cretaceous. True monitor lizards (Varanus) are known from diagnostic remains beginning in the early Miocene (Varanus rusingensis), although extremely fragmentary remains have been suggested as indicating earlier Varanus. The paleobiogeographic history of Varanus and timing for origin of its gigantism remain uncertain.

Concepts: Reptile, Squamata, Komodo dragon, Snake, Monitor lizard, Anguimorpha, Mosasaur, Heloderma


While snake venoms have been the subject of intense study, comparatively little work has been done on lizard venoms. In this study, we have examined the structural and functional diversification of anguimorph lizard venoms and associated toxins, and related these results to dentition and predatory ecology. Venom composition was shown to be highly variable across the 20 species of Heloderma, Lanthanotus, and Varanus included in our study. While kallikrein enzymes were ubiquitous, they were also a particularly multifunctional toxin type, with differential activities on enzyme substrates and also ability to degrade alpha or beta chains of fibrinogen that reflects structural variability. Examination of other toxin types also revealed similar variability in their presence and activity levels. The high level of venom chemistry variation in varanid lizards compared to that of helodermatid lizards suggests that venom may be subject to different selection pressures in these two families. These results not only contribute to our understanding of venom evolution but also reveal anguimorph lizard venoms to be rich sources of novel bioactive molecules with potential as drug design and development lead compounds.

Concepts: Squamata, Komodo dragon, Venom, Snake, Monitor lizard, Anguimorpha, Heloderma, Scleroglossa


The archetypical venomous lizard species are the helodermatids, the Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum) and the Beaded Lizards (Heloderma horridum). In the present study, the gila monster venom proteome was characterized using 2D-gel electrophoresis and tandem mass spectrometry-based de novo peptide sequencing followed by protein identification based on sequence homology. A total of 39 different proteins were identified out of the 58 selected spots that represent the major constituents of venom. Of these proteins, 19 have not previously been identified in helodermatid venom. The data showed that helodermatid venom is complex and that this complexity is caused by genetic isoforms and post-translational modifications including proteolytic processing. In addition, the venom proteome analysis revealed that the major constituents of the gila monster venom are kallikrein-like serine proteinases (EC 3.4.21) and phospholipase A2 (type III) enzymes (EC A neuroendocrine convertase 1 homolog that most likely converts the proforms of the previously identified bioactive exendins into the mature and active forms was identified suggesting that these peptide toxins are secreted as proforms that are activated by proteolytic cleavage following secretion as opposed to being activated intracellularly. The presented global protein identification-analysis provides the first overview of the helodermatid venom composition.

Concepts: Protein, Amino acid, Proteomics, Squamata, Lizard, Heloderma, Gila monster, Beaded lizard


The physiological challenges associated with dehydration can induce an increase in plasma glucocorticoid concentrations, a response thought to provide the mechanism for dehydration suppressing immune function. However, a comprehensive examination of the interrelationship of dehydration, stress, and immune function has not been conducted within a single species. We previously demonstrated that Gila monsters (Heloderma suspectum), which inhabit a xeric environment with a predictable seasonal drought, have enhanced measures of innate immunity when dehydrated. These results suggest that, in this species, dehydration may not induce a glucocorticoid response, but, instead, enhances physiological defense mechanisms. To explore this possibility, we examined multiple measures of innate immunity as well as initial and reactive plasma concentrations of glucocorticoids in captive and free-ranging Gila monsters at various hydration states. Our results show that, in this species, dehydration alone does not cause a substantial increase in plasma glucocorticoids, and we provide broader evidence that dehydration enhances defensive mechanisms including stress reactivity and various measures of innate immune function. These findings suggest that physiological responses to dehydration may depend heavily on an organism’s ecology. More research on the effects of dehydration on the glucocorticoid response and immunity will help clarify the interactive roles they play in response to hydric challenges and whether adaptations to water-limited environments influence these interactions.

Concepts: Immune system, Biology, Innate immune system, Immunity, Squamata, Heloderma, Gila monster, Beaded lizard


An adult male Rio Fuerte beaded lizard (Heloderma horridum exasperatum) was examined because of a history of anorexia and lethargy of one week duration. Diagnostic tests included a physical exam, complete blood cell count, plasma biochemistries, whole-body radiographs, and ultrasonography. The physical exam revealed the presence of a large mass in the midcoelomic cavity. Radiographs confirmed the presence of the midcoelomic mass and showed a smaller mass in the right cranial lung field. The ultrasonogram showed a homogeneous mass with soft tissue echogenicity. A fine-needle aspirate was collected, and the cytology results were suggestive of a melanophoroma. Exploratory surgery revealed a large mass (10 × 6 cm) within the right lung, with extensive adhesions to the caudolateral margin of the right liver lobe. The smaller mass (2 × 3 cm) was within the cranial aspect of the right lung. A right pulmonectomy and partial hepatectomy were performed to remove the tumors. The animal died 3.5-yr postsurgery, and histopathologic evaluation did not show evidence of melanophoroma in any of the tissues evaluated.

Concepts: Hemoglobin, Cancer, Lung, Red blood cell, Liver, Heloderma, Gila monster, Beaded lizard


Research into snake venoms has revealed extensive variation at all taxonomic levels. Lizard venoms, however, have received scant research attention in general, and no studies of intraclade variation in lizard venom composition have been attempted to date. Despite their iconic status and proven usefulness in drug design and discovery, highly venomous helodermatid lizards (gila monsters and beaded lizards) have remained neglected by toxinological research. Proteomic comparisons of venoms of three helodermatid lizards in this study has unravelled an unusual similarity in venom-composition, despite the long evolutionary time (~30 million years) separating H. suspectum from the other two species included in this study (H. exasperatum and H. horridum). Moreover, several genes encoding the major helodermatid toxins appeared to be extremely well-conserved under the influence of negative selection (but with these results regarded as preliminary due to the scarcity of available sequences). While the feeding ecologies of all species of helodermatid lizard are broadly similar, there are significant morphological differences between species, which impact upon relative niche occupation.

Concepts: Evolution, Squamata, Venom, Lizard, Monitor lizard, Heloderma, Gila monster, Beaded lizard


Background. The Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) is a venomous lizard native to the deserts of southwestern United States (US) and northern Mexico. The purpose of this study was to describe human exposures to Gila monsters reported to US poison control centers (PCCs) with a focus on Arizona cases. Methods. The American Association of Poison Control Centers' National Poison Data System (NPDS) was used to access and retrospectively review all calls to US PCCs, concerning Gila monsters between January 1, 2000 and October 31, 2011. In addition, detailed records from the two Arizona PCCs were reviewed for the same time period. Results. A total of 319 calls regarding Gila monsters were identified in the NPDS. Of these, 105 (33%) were human exposures; most (79%) occurred in males. A total of 71 (68%) of these 105 cases were referred to a health care facility (HCF); 30 (29%) were managed on-site. Of the 71 HCF referrals, 36 (51%) were discharged home and 17 (24%) were admitted. Most (65%) admissions were to an intensive care unit (ICU). Arizona’s PCCs received 70 unique reports of Gila monster bite. Most (77%) of the bites in Arizona involved an upper extremity. Eight (11%) involved patients under the age of 18 years. Eleven (16%) Arizona cases were work-related. Twenty-eight (40%) of the 70 bites in Arizona were evaluated in a HCF, but not admitted. Eleven (16%) were admitted, of which five were to an ICU. Six patients had edema of airway structures; three required emergent airway management, one by cricothyrotomy. There were no deaths. Conclusion. Gila monster bites are uncommon. Many cases did not require hospitalization. Edema of airway structures is an infrequent, but life-threatening complication.

Concepts: Squamata, Lizard, Poison control center, Heloderma, Gila monster, Beaded lizard, Gila River, Edward Drinker Cope


A wide variety of sex determination systems exist among squamate reptiles. They can therefore serve as an important model for studies of evolutionary transitions among particular sex determination systems. However, we still have only a limited knowledge of sex determination in certain important lineages of squamates. In this respect, one of the most understudied groups is the family Helodermatidae (Anguimorpha) encompassing the only two venomous species of lizards which are potentially lethal to human beings. We uncovered homomorphic ZZ/ZW sex chromosomes in the Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) with a highly heterochromatic W chromosome. The sex chromosomes are morphologically similar to the ZZ/ZW sex chromosomes of monitor lizards (Varanidae). If the sex chromosomes of helodermatids and varanids are homologous, female heterogamety may be ancestral for the whole Anguimorpha group. Moreover, we found that the karyotype of the Gila monster consists of 2n = 36 chromosomes (14 larger metacentric chromosomes and 22 acrocentric microchromosomes). 2n = 36 is the widely distributed chromosomal number among squamates. In his pioneering works representing the only previous cytogenetic examination of the family Helodermatidae, Matthey reported the karyotype as 2n = 38 and suggested a different chromosomal morphology for this species. We believe that this was probably erroneously. We also discovered a strong accumulation of telomeric sequences on several pairs of microchromosomes in the Gila monster, which is a trait documented relatively rarely in vertebrates. These new data fill an important gap in our understanding of the sex determination and karyotype evolution of squamates.

Concepts: Chromosome, Squamata, Lizard, Monitor lizard, Anguimorpha, Heloderma, Gila monster, Scleroglossa


Mitigation translocation of nuisance animals is a commonly used management practice aimed at resolution of human-animal conflict by removal and release of an individual animal. Long considered a reasonable undertaking, especially by the general public, it is now known that translocated subjects are negatively affected by the practice. Mitigation translocation is typically undertaken with individual adult organisms and has a much lower success rate than the more widely practiced conservation translocation of threatened and endangered species. Nonetheless, the public and many conservation practitioners believe that because population-level conservation translocations have been successful that mitigation translocation can be satisfactorily applied to a wide variety of human-wildlife conflict situations. We reviewed mitigation translocations of reptiles, including our own work with 3 long-lived species (Gila monsters [Heloderma suspectum], Sonoran desert tortoises [Gopherus morafkai], and western diamond-backed rattlesnakes [Crotalus atrox]). Overall, mitigation translocation had a low success rate when judged either by effects on individuals (in all studies reviewed they exhibited increased movement or increased mortality) or by the success of the resolution of the human-animal conflict (translocated individuals often returned to the capture site). Careful planning and identification of knowledge gaps are critical to increasing success rates in mitigation translocations in the face of increasing pressure to find solutions for species threatened by diverse anthropogenic factors, including climate change and exurban and energy development. Problemas con la Mitigación por Traslocación de Herpetofauna.

Concepts: Species, Endangered species, Squamata, The Practice, Heloderma, Crotalus atrox, Gila monster, Fauna of the Sonoran Desert


INTRODUCTION: Immune function is a vital physiological process that is often suppressed during times of resource scarcity due to investments in other physiological systems. While energy is the typical currency that has been examined in such trade-offs, limitations of other resources may similarly lead to trade-offs that affect immune function. Specifically, water is a critical resource with profound implications for organismal ecology, yet its availability can fluctuate at local, regional, and even global levels. Despite this, the effect of osmotic state on immune function has received little attention. RESULTS: Using agglutination and lysis assays as measures of an organism’s plasma concentration of natural antibodies and capacity for foreign cell destruction, respectively, we tested the independent effects of osmotic state, digestive state, and energy balance on innate immune function in free-ranging and laboratory populations of the Gila monster, Heloderma suspectum. This desert-dwelling lizard experiences dehydration and energy resource fluctuations on a seasonal basis. Dehydration was expected to decrease innate immune function, yet we found that dehydration increased lysis and agglutination abilities in both lab and field studies, a relationship that was not simply an effect of an increased concentration of immune molecules. Laboratory-based differences in digestive state were not associated with lysis or agglutination metrics, although in our field population, a loss of fat stores was correlated with an increase in lysis. CONCLUSIONS: Depending on the life history of an organism, osmotic state may have a greater influence on immune function than energy availability. Thus, consideration of osmotic state as a factor influencing immune function will likely improve our understanding of ecoimmunology and the disease dynamics of a wide range of species.

Concepts: Immune system, Antibody, Biology, Innate immune system, Immunity, Squamata, Heloderma, Gila monster