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Abstract

The Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum), widely distributed in parts of the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, is rare in California. However, during the last 153 years, as many as 26 credible records have been documented from four California counties. Habitat in which the species has been observed in California is characterized by rocky, deeply incised topography, in most cases, associated with large and relatively high mountain ranges. Most localities are associated with riparian areas (including the lower Colorado River) and range from near sea level to over 1,200 m. All records except one (Mojave River) occur east of about 116 longitude. Records documented with photographs or museum specimens generally show color patterns diagnostic of the geographically expected subspecies H. s. cinctum. The distribution of the species in California suggests an invasion into the high mountain ranges of the northeastern Mojave during the last interglacial via the Colorado River corridor. We explored the hypothesis that climate patterns shaped the current distribution of the Gila monster in California. Precipitation is decidedly biphasic east of 116 longitude, with over 24 percent falling in the warm season. Warm season precipitation data from recording stations closest to Gila monster localities are almost identical for those in western Arizona where the species is more common. Summer precipitation may be important in the foraging ecology of the species. Gila monsters were probably already rare in California long before the arrival of Europeans due to changes in climate and landform that delimited the marginal location of California in the range of this species. Fortunately, most of the habitat for this species in California is protected or relatively free from human disturbance.

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