TUCSON, AZ - Gila monsters are out of their winter burrows about two weeks earlier than usual this year -- looking for chow now and lizard love in the near future.
Reptile experts say the hefty critters, which are venomous but generally not aggressive, apparently are active a bit ahead of schedule because of the unusually warm late-winter weather.
No Gila monster bites have been reported this year, according to the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center.
"They are out about two weeks ahead of schedule," said Roger Repp, president of the Tucson Herpetological Society and an avid observer and student of Gila monsters. "It has been warm, and as things get warm the Gila monsters tend to get jacked up and come out."
Bill Savary, a member of the society, said the warm weather "is no doubt a contributing factor" to the critters' early appearance above ground.
"The first Gila monster I saw this year was a couple weeks ago," Savary said. "But other people have been reporting them in recent days, and I moved one off the road near my house" on Sunday.
Adult Gila monsters are, well, big honkin' lizards with large heads and thick tails.
"Twenty inches long would be a big Gila monster," said Repp. "The heaviest one I've ever weighed is roughly 850 grams -- equal to almost two pounds."
As striking as a G-monster's size is its color, with hues of orange and pink set off against background shades of dark brown and black.
On the menu: The big lizards feed on small rodents, birds' eggs, baby birds and other fare.
Mating is likely to begin sometime in the coming weeks.
"The earliest reported early breeding in the wild that I have ever heard of was April 1," Repp said. "And most experts agree that May 1 is normal."
Females typically lay about six eggs during the summer.
"We do not see the hatchlings until late April to May the following year," Repp said.
People bitten by Gila monsters usually are people who pick the animals up or otherwise get too close, but now and then someone is bitten when reaching under a rock or going barefoot.
While the bites can be painful and venom can be delivered into the wound, deaths from bites have been extremely rare, with the most recent documented death about 100 years ago.
Repp's advice: "What I would like people to do when they see a Gila monster is feel the same elation that I feel when I do. Know that one can safely approach to a few steps away without being in any danger. Trying to pick one up is not advisable, illegal, and dangerous."
Other potentially dangerous critters are also out and about as the weather warms, including rattlesnakes and bees.
Keith Boesen, director of the Poison and Drug Information Center, said the center has received reports of five rattlesnake bites in February and one in March so far. The center covers all Arizona counties except Maricopa County, where another center keeps track of bites.
Steve Thoenes, president of a bee-removal company called BeeMaster Inc., said bees are busy.
"They're swarming now due to the citrus and creosote blossoms," Thoenes said. "It's been off and on for about two weeks. We're getting calls for removals."