Deeper into Jeopardy! XXV: Critters – $1200

Jeopardy! category: CRITTERS (17-09-2014)

$1200 clue: The reptile family Helodermatidae has 2 members: the beaded lizard & this “monster”

Correct response

The gist: Do you think this clue’s correct response enjoys its dubious honour as the only animal (I can think of) that’s actually called a monster in its name?*

And the Gila monster‘s name issues continue, as I’ve now learned, since the “technically correct” pronunciation of the lizard’s name is “HEE-la,” after an Arizonan river, not “gee-la” with a hard G as I’ve always said. Anyway, the Gila monster is North America’s only venomous lizard, and, along with its beaded cousin living south of the Rio Grande, one of just two in the New World (most of the Earth’s others living in that hotbed of terrifying critters, Australia). Gila monsters can grow to be about two feet long, with patterned light and dark scales that are  either “reticulated” or “banded,” depending on the subspecies. Living in the desert, they’re fairly sluggish animals, preferring to spend most of their time burrowed underground or in the shade to cool off. They come out to hunt small prey like insects, amphibians, and eggs, and will also eat carrion if they find it. They only actively hunt a few times a year, gorging themselves when they do to get them through the lean months with the fat stored in somewhat goofy-looking tails.

Their venom has long been the subject of fascination and half-justified fear on the part of humans. Their bite has never been observed to be fatal to a human, but they are reportedly very painful and can certainly render someone bedridden for a few days – documented by pioneer physician Dr. George Goodfellow in the late nineteenth century, who deliberately provoked a lizard into biting him. Even if their venom was more deadly, though, their lethargic lifestyle means they’re very unlikely to bite a human in the wild. Unfortunately, though, misconceptions about their danger have led to unnecessary killing of the creatures which, coupled with habitat destruction, has led to them being classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN, and they have been a protected species since 1952, the first venomous species to receive the designation.

Despite their venom, though, the lizard has also furnished us with more helpful substances; exenatide, derived from Gila monster saliva, is now used as a treatment for Type 2 Diabetes.

A Gila monster at the American International Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque

The clue: If you really know your Greek, then this clue has sadly given you the easier of the two Helodermatidae – “helo” is “bead” and “derma” is skin, so the beaded lizard would be the simpler one. But the writers clearly don’t expect the scientific jargon to help with this clue, anyway, since they also give that they’re looking for a “monster” – pointing only to the Gila, particularly for an American audience. That’s why I said yesterday that perhaps this should have been the $800 clue instead, but the disparity in (perceived) difficulty in the end isn’t so great anyway.

In Jeopardy!A nearly uniquely American animal, the Gila monster has been featured in 18 clues in the J!Archive, not bad for a not-too-well-known species. Ten of the clues mention the creature’s toxicity, although they regularly fail to make the (ultra-pedantic but again “technically correct”) distinction between “venomous” animals (which inject their toxins) and “poisonous” animals (whose toxins are secreted or contained in the body) – the Gila monster is venomous, not poisonous. Its beaded cousin shows up in six clues, and its American Southwestern habitat in eight. Plus, “monster” (with the quotes) is in five – less than I would have thought, but still not a rare inclusion. And for Jeopardy!’s purposes, there’s nothing else you really need to know about these guys.

*If you can think of any others, please let me know in the comments!

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