The discussion of the curious lizard found in our Western Territories and in Mexico, and variously known as the "Montana alligator," "the Gila monster," and "the Mexican heloderma," is becoming decidedly interesting.
As noted in a recent issue of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, a live specimen was sent last summer to Sir John Lubbock, and by him presented to the London Zoological Gardens. At first it was handled as any other lizard would be, without special fear of its bite, although its mouth is well armed with teeth. Subsequent investigation has convinced its keepers that the creature is not a fit subject for careless handling; that its native reputation is justified by fact; and that it is an exception to all known lizards, in that its teeth are poison fangs comparable with those of venomous serpents.
Speaking of the Mexican reputation of the lizard, in a recent issue of Knowledge, Dr. Andrew Wilson, whose opinion will be respected by all naturalists, says that "without direct evidence of such a statement no man of science, basing his knowledge of lizard nature on the exact knowledge to hand, would have hesitated in rejecting the story as, at least, improbable. Yet it is clear that the stories of the New World may have had an actual basis of fact; for the Heloderma horridum has been, beyond doubt, proved to be poisonous in as high a degree as a cobra or a rattlesnake.
"At first the lizard was freely handled by those in charge at Regent's Park, and being a lizard, was regarded as harmless. It was certainly dull and inactive, a result probably due to its long voyage and to the want of food. Thanks, however, to the examination of Dr. Gunther, of the British Museum, and to actual experiment, we now know that Heloderma will require in future to be classed among the deadly enemies of other animals. Examining its mouth, Dr. Gunther found that its teeth formed a literal series of poison fangs. Each tooth, apparently, possesses a poison gland; and lizards, it may be added, are plentifully supplied with these organs as a rule. Experimenting upon the virulence of the poison, Heloderma was made to bite a frog and a guinea pig. The frog died in one minute, and the guinea-pig in three. The virus required to produce these effects must be of singularly acute and powerful nature. It is to be hoped that no case of human misadventure at the teeth of Heloderma may happen. There can be no question, judging from the analogy of serpent-bite, that the poison of the lizard would affect man."
HELODERMA HORRIDUM, OR GILA MONSTER
In an article in the London Field, Mr. W.B. Tegetmeier states that this remarkable lizard was first described in the Isis, in 1829, by the German naturalist Wiegmann, who gave it the name it bears, and noted the ophidian character of its teeth.
In the Comptes Rendus of 1875, M.F. Sumichrast gave a much more detailed account of the habits and mode of life of this animal, and forwarded specimens in alcohol to Paris, where they were dissected and carefully described. The results of these investigations have been published in the third part of the "Mission Scientifique an Mexique," which, being devoted to reptiles, has been edited by Messrs. Aug. Dumeril and Becourt.
The heloderm, according to M.F. Sumichrast, inhabits the hot zone of Mexico - that intervening between the high mountains and the Pacific in the districts bordering the Gulf of Tehuantepec. It is found only where the climate is dry and hot; and on the moister eastern slopes of the mountain chain that receive the damp winds from the Gulf of Mexico it is entirely unknown. Of its habits but little is known, as it appears to be, like many lizards, nocturnal, or seminocturnal, in its movements, and, moreover, it is viewed with extreme dread by the natives, who regard it as equally poisonous with the most venomous serpents. It is obviously, however, a terrestrial animal, as it has not a swimming tail flattened from side to side, nor the climbing feet that so characteristically mark arboreal lizards. Sumichrast further states that the animal has a strong nauseous smell, and that when irritated it secretes a large quantity of gluey saliva. In order to test its supposed poisonous property, he caused a young one to bite a pullet under the wing. In a few minutes the adjacent parts became violet in color, convulsions ensued, from which the bird partially recovered, but it died at the expiration of twelve hours.
A large cat was also caused to be bitten in the foot by the same heloderm; it was not killed, but the limb became swollen, and the cat continued mewing for several hours, as if in extreme pain. The dead specimens sent to Europe have been carefully examined as to the character of the teeth. Sections of these have been made, which demonstrate the existence of a canal in each, totally distinct from and anterior to the pulp cavity; but the soft parts had not been examined with sufficient care to determine the existence or non-existence of any poison gland in immediate connection with these perforated teeth until Dr. Gunther's observations were made, as described by Dr. Wilson.
Hitherto, as noted in a previous article, American naturalists have regarded the heloderm as quite harmless - an opinion well sustained by the judgment of many persons in Arizona and other parts of the West by whom the reptile has been kept as an interesting though ugly pet. While the Indians and native Mexicans believe the creature to be venomous, we have never heard an instance in which the bite of it has proved fatal.
A correspondent of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, "C.E.J.," writing from Salt Lake City, Utah, under date of September 8, says, after referring to the article on the heloderm in our issue of August 26:
"Having resided in the southern part of this Territory for seventeen years, where the mercury often reaches 110° or more in the shade, and handled a number of these 'monsters,' I can say that I never yet knew anybody or anything to have perished from their bite. We have often had two or three of them tied in the door-yard by a hind leg, and the children have freely played around them - picking them up by the nape of the neck and watching them snap off a small bit from the end of a stick when poked at them. We have fed them raw egg and milk; the latter they take with great relish. At one time a small canine came too near the mouth of our alligator (mountain alligator, we call them), when it instantly caught the pup by the under jaw and held on as only it could (they have a powerful jaw), nor would it release its hold until choked near to death, which was done by taking it behind the bony framework of the head, between the thumb and finger, and pressing hard. The pup did considerable howling for half an hour, by which time the jaw was much swollen, remaining so for two or three days, after which it was all right again. By this I could only conclude that the animal was but slightly poisonous. I never knew of a human being having been bitten by one.
My sister kept one about the house for several weeks, and fed it from her hands and with a spoon. The specimens have generally been sent (through the Deseret Museum) to colleges and museums in the East.
"The Indians have a great fear that these animals produce at will good or bad weather, and will not molest them. Many times they have come to see them, and told us that we should let them go or they would talk to the storm spirit and send wind and water and fire upon us. An old Indian I once talked with told me of another who was bitten on the hand, and said it swelled up the arm badly, but he recovered. From some reason we never find specimens less than 12 or 14 inches long, I never saw a young one. There is a nice stuffed specimen, 18 inches long, in our museum here."
Sir John Lubbock's specimen, shown in the engraving herewith, for which we are indebted to the London Field, is about 19 inches in length. Its general color is a creamy buff, with dark brown markings. The forepart of the head and muzzle is entirely dark, the upper eyelid being indicated by a light stripe. The entire body is covered with circular warts. It is fed upon eggs, which it eats greedily.
It would be interesting to know whether the northern specimens, if venomous at all, are as fully equipped with poison bags and fangs as Dr. Gunther finds the Mexican specimen to be. Some of our Western or Mexican readers may be able to make comparative tests. Meantime it would be prudent to limit the use of the "monster" as a children's pet.
The foregoing appeared in the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN of Oct. 7, 1882.
We are now indebted to a correspondent, Mr. Wm. Y. Beach, of the Grand View Mine, Grant County, Southern Arizona, for a fine specimen of this singular reptile, just received alive. The example sent to us is about twenty inches long, and answers very well to the description of the monster and the engraving above given.
In the course of an hour after opening the box in which the reptile had been confined during its eight days' journey by rail, it became very much at home, stretching and crawling about our office floor with much apparent satisfaction.
Our correspondent is located in the mountains, some nine miles distant from the Gila River. He states that the reptile he sends was found in one of the shops pertaining to the mine, which had been left unoccupied for a week or so.
Apropos to the foregoing, we have received the following letter from another correspondent in Arizona:
To the Editor of the Scientific American:
My attention has been called to an article in your issue of Oct. 7, 1882, relating to the Heloderma horridum, or commonly known as the Gila Monster.
During a residence of ten years in Arizona I have had many opportunities of learning the habits of these reptiles, and I am satisfied their bite will produce serious effects, if not death, of the human race. I know of one instance where a gentleman of my acquaintance by the name of Bostick, at the Tiga Top mining camp, in Arizona, was bitten on the fingers, and suffered all the symptoms of poison from snake bite. He was confined to his bed for six weeks and subsequently died. I am of the opinion his death was in part caused by the effects of the poison of the Gila Monster.
The Hualzar Indians are very much afraid of them, and one I showed the picture to of the Monster in your paper remarked, "Chinamuck," which in Hualzar language means "very bad." He said if an Indian is bitten, he sometimes dies.
I have seen them nearly two feet in length. Never, to my knowledge, are they kept as pets in our portion of Arizona. They live on mice and other small animals, and when aggravated can jump several times their length.
W.E. DAY, M.D.
Huckberry, Mahone Co., Ar. T., April, 1883.