By Brandon Stewart
Extensive effort has been put into safeguarding the desert tortoise species of Nevada. However, there is a much rarer creature that is getting even more special attention from Nevada students and Clark County.
Gila monsters, one of only two venomous lizards in the world, across the Mojave desert are being painstakingly sought to discover their world. According to Chris Gienger, a nevada natural resources and environmental sciences graduate student heading up the Clark County Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Project, it is no easy task.
“For every one Gila monster we see, we see 25 tortoises, which are significantly endangered as it is,” Gienger says.
In fact, it takes nearly 300 hours of searching before Gienger and his team find one of the rare lizards. That is a few months of searching 16 hours a day in the extreme heat of the Valley of Fire State Park on the eastern edge of Las Vegas.
Before this project began, only 12 of the lizards had ever been spotted in the Silver State.
“There have been state field biologists who’ve spent 30 years in Nevada working in the field and have never seen one,” Gienger says.
However, during the three years of the project, which is the first of its kind in the state, 16 of the animals have been found, more than have been spotted in the history of the search.
When captured, the researchers attach a miniature radio transmitter to the lizard for tracking purposes.
“We want to find out how they survive in the desert,” Gienger said. “Because they’re so rare, we didn’t know anything about them [before the project began].”
Some of the most significant findings so far relate to Gila monsters’ unique characteristics. As opposed to the ones found in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and California, the Nevada Gila monster is roughly half their size and can travel twice as far in the same amount of time.
The significance of this project is especially apparent in the booming city of Las Vegas.
“Vegas is the fastest-growing city in the U.S., and it could potentially just wipe out unknown populations before they’re even identified — before we even know anything about the species,” Gienger says. “We’re trying to find out everything we can before they are gone.”
Following the project, Gienger plans to use data collected for his doctoral dissertation in mapping the habitat of the lizard and detailing its behavior.