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AZ Press: Splotched lizard shows beauty

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Posted by: W von Papinešu at Tue Sep 26 20:21:42 2006  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by W von Papinešu ]  
   

ARIZONA REPUBLIC (Phoenix, Arizona) 26 September 06 Shy, splotched lizard shows a beauty within (Connie Midey)
The reptile causing all the stir in the world of diabetes treatment looks like a cross between a color-splotched, beaded evening purse and a stout-bodied, skinny-toed alien. Maybe one part miniature dinosaur, too.
Come too close to the solitude-loving Gila monster, and it opens its powerful jaws, displays grooved teeth and hisses.
"I'm trouble," it's telling you. "Leave me alone."
But this isn't a face only a mother - or a diabetic - could love.
Arizona State University veterinarian Dale DeNardo, an assistant life sciences professor, has been studying Gila monsters for seven years. About 30 of the lizards live in a lab at ASU, and he uses radio transmitters to track the same number in the Arizona desert.
Still, he's thrilled when he spots one in the wild.
"I think they're fascinating-looking," he says. "The more you know about them, the more you realize beauty really is in the eye of the beholder."
DeNardo is especially interested in how the lizards have managed to survive in the Sonoran desert for millions of years, despite the challenges of hot, dry weather and limited water and food.
Raiding ground nests for tortoise eggs, rodents, birds and baby rabbits, Gila monsters may consume more than 50 percent of their body mass in one meal, then go months without food.
Researchers discovered that after a Gila monster ate one of its rare meals, high levels of a protein from its venom-laced saliva circulated in its blood, DeNardo says. The lizard secretes venom through grooved teeth into its mouth, rather than through fangs directly into the victim as a rattlesnake does.
A synthetic version of that protein, now named exenatide, is the basis for the glucose-lowering drug Byetta. It's prescribed for people with type 2 diabetes.
The Gila monster is one of only two venomous lizards in the world. The other is the Mexican beaded lizard.
"The (Gila monster's) venom isn't deadly to humans," DeNardo says, joking that bite victims may wish it was. "I've been told it's extremely painful, like having a hammer hit your thumb every five seconds for 45 minutes."
Gila monsters are the largest American lizards, reaching lengths of about two feet and weighing three to five pounds. But they're shy and use their powerful jaws on people only when threatened, he says.
Their black and orange-pink coloration makes them hard to spot.
Gila monsters live 20 to 30 years, and it's illegal to take them from the wild. The Arizona Game and Fish Department turns confiscated and "nuisance" Gila monsters over to the ASU lab.
There's still much to be learned from these survivors, DeNardo says, and he'd hate to see them disappear.
"As we've seen with Byetta," he says, "if we lose the animals, we lose those discoveries."
Shy, splotched lizard shows a beauty within


   

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