Surviving on the Edge: What Does a Gila Monster Eat?

Gila monsters qualify as carnivorous reptiles, but that’s a slightly incomplete view of the animal’s diet. These reptiles would better qualify as carnivorous scavengers, as they can eat any type of meat, dead or alive. They can even consume insects.

Today, we will discuss Gila’s feeding preferences, hunting behavior, and physiological adaptations that allow for extended fasting and amazing resilience to nutrient deprivation. But let’s take these one by one.

Gila Monster Diet in the Wild

Gila monsters rank as opportunistic hunters, so they’re perfectly fine with whatever they can catch.

Especially since they can’t run after their prey due to their anatomy and the fact that they’re always in an energy conservation mode. These reptiles move slowly and can’t get past this limitation even when their lives are in danger.

To overcome this downside, Gila monsters had to adapt, and you can see that in how they feed and what they feed on. The reptile’s favorite foods in the wild are those that either don’t move or don’t move fast enough.

This includes eggs, small and oblivious rodents, rabbits, lizards, frogs, insects, and carrion since animal carcasses aren’t known to be very active.

When it comes to the actual hunting tactic and food-gathering behavior, Gila monsters rely on several strategies, such as:

  • Prey detection – The smell is the lizard’s most powerful asset. Gila monsters have a very acute sense of smell, which they use to locate their potential prey and even determine the distance to their food. This accurate reading comes in handy in a rocky and uneven habitat where prey is very cautious and not always visible.
  • Stalking – Once the Gila has detected the prey, the stalking game begins. Gila monsters move slowly, so they use this to their advantage. They move carefully toward their prey and use their surrounding layout to mask their approach. Once in striking range, Gila monsters strike mercilessly.
  • The catch – Gila monsters possess a neurotoxic venom that decreases and even ceases muscular activity. However, they only inject small amounts of venom because they don’t possess venom glands as snakes do. Instead, they produce venom mixed with saliva, which covers the lower jaw teeth. To make up for the low quantity of venom, Gila monsters rely on their bite strength to hang on to their prey for minutes. This gives the venom time to work its magic and immobilize the animal. Gila monsters can exert a jaw pressure of up to 200 psi, which is astounding, given the reptile’s medium size.

Once the prey has been disabled, the Gila can begin the eating process. If live food isn’t available, these reptiles can also scavenge for carrion and food leftovers from other animals.

Or forage for reptile and bird eggs, so long as they’re buried in the ground. They use their powerful claws and relentless determination to unearth and consume vast amounts of eggs. It’s common for Gila monsters to eat up to 33% of their body weight in one go.

This is proof of the lizard’s ability to adapt to an environment with few hunting and feeding opportunities. And this isn’t the only adaptation that describes the reptile’s incredible resilience.

Gila monsters can store a lot of fat in their tails, which they can use as a nutrient reserve during rougher times. They can also store water under their skin via a subcutaneous layer that has evolved for that specific reason.

These adaptations allow the Gila monster to survive and even thrive in harsh environmental conditions that would cause other animals to perish.

Pet Gila Monster Diet

The Gila monster’s diet in captivity should reflect the animal’s preferences and natural eating habits. Gila monsters require a protein-rich diet that would preferably include a diversity of food sources.

Lizards, pink mice, large insects like grasshoppers, or other mammals and reptiles all make for quality foods.

Food variety is more important for Gila monsters than for any other reptile. These lizards need multiple foods that you would cycle through weekly to ensure the proper nutrient intake.

Otherwise, your Gila pet may experience nutritional deficiencies, which they are known to deal with in captivity. This brings us to another point, which is the difficulty of keeping Gila monsters in captivity.

It is generally not recommended to grow Gila monsters because these animals are notorious for their extreme sensitivity to life in captivity. They often get stressed and fall sick, despite you doing everything you can to prevent it.

If you’ve decided to invest in a Gila monster, here’s what you need to consider first:

  • The pricing – These lizards are very expensive, as you will be lucky to find one below the $1,000 threshold. Many specimens jump up to $2,000 or more.
  • The venomous bite – This is an important one because Gila monsters have a venomous bite. They possess a neurotoxic venom that can cause local discomfort, pain, swelling, and numbness. Fortunately, they only inject low amounts of venom, and the symptoms usually appear 24-48 hours after the bite and go away on their own. You still require medical attention to make sure everything’s fine, and there’s no risk of complications. While the lizard’s bite isn’t a matter of life and death, the fact that Gila monsters are venomous, to begin with, is still a turn-off for many people. Especially since this particularity makes Gila monsters unfit as children’s pets.
  • The issue of stress – Sometimes, your Gila monster may become stressed, despite all your efforts to evade the issue. This is due to these lizards not being well adapted to life in captivity. Unfortunately, stressed reptiles exhibit immune deficiencies, which leave them vulnerable to parasites and diseases. You can avert this problem, but it’s a matter of continuous efforts and luck.

Overall, these lizards are not meant for a captive lifestyle, but you can make it work. Just keep in mind the primary tenets:

  • A diverse diet and a personalized meal plan, based on your Gila’s preferences
  • Sufficient space for the reptile to live a healthy and carefree life
  • Constant maintenance and pristine living conditions
  • As few reptile-human interactions because Gila monsters aren’t fond of handling and petting

Gila Monster Ability to Survive Without Food

Gila monsters are renowned for their ability to survive extended periods without any sustenance.

This is due to 3 things:

  • The reptile’s ability to store fat – Gila monsters can eat a lot and store many of the nutrients in the form of fat in their tails. They can use these resources when necessary, allowing the lizard to last months without eating anything.
  • Slow metabolisms – Gila monsters have slow metabolisms, which means they only need small quantities of food to survive. The more food they have, the better, of course. But abundance isn’t necessary for Gila to stay healthy over the years.
  • Energy-saving behavior – Gila monsters are slow-moving animals, which is an evolutionary adaptation. This behavior allows them to save energy during their active hours, which is especially important in an environment with little food and scarce water sources.

All reptiles exhibit these adaptations and behaviors due to them sharing similar physiological mechanisms. But it’s the Gila monster that drives the species’ potential to the next level.


Gila monsters are scary but astounding animals that push the notion of survival to its limits. This reptile can survive far longer without food and water than most reptiles and animals on the planet.

However, if you own or think about owning a Gila monster, don’t take the animal’s resilience and adaptability for granted.

You want your Gila monster to live a long, happy, and healthy life, which necessarily requires a stable and nutritious diet and constant access to a water source.

Among other things like great housing conditions, proper long-term maintenance, and quality veterinary assistance, of course.

Robert from ReptileJam

Hey, I'm Robert, and I have a true passion for reptiles that began when I was just 10 years old. My parents bought me my first pet snake as a birthday present, which sparked my interest in learning more about them. read more...