Threatened throughout its range by overcollection and habitat loss, it is a CITES protected animal. The Montagua Valley subspecies (H. h. charlesborgeti) is one of the rarest lizards in the world, with a wild population of less than 200 animals.
The species was first described in 1829 by Arend Weigmann as Trachyderma horridum, however, he renamed it Heloderma horridum six months later. Its generic name Heloderma means "studded skin", from the Ancient Greek words hêlos (ηλος)—the head of a nail or stud—and derma (δερμα), meaning skin. Its specific name, Horrĭdum, is the Latin word meaning rough or rude.
There are four subspecies of Beaded Lizard:
Adult beaded lizards range from to inches in length. It is substantially larger than the Gila monster, which only reaches lengths of to . Although males are slightly larger than females, the animals are not sexually dimorphic. Both males and females are stocky with broad heads, although the males tend to be broader. The beaded lizard's scales are small, bead-like and non-overlapping. Except for the underside of the animal, the majority of its scales are underlaid with bony osteoderms. Their base color is black and marked with varying amounts of yellow spots or bands, with the exception of H. h. alvarezi, which tends to be all black in color. The beaded lizard also has a short tail which is used to store fat so the animal can survive during months of estivation. Unlike many other lizards, this tail does not autotomize and cannot grow back if broken. The beaded lizard has a forked black tongue which it uses to smell, with the help of a Jacobson's organ; it sticks its tongue out to gather scents and touches it to the opening of the organ when the tongue is retracted.
The beaded lizard is found in the Pacific Drainages from Southern Sonora to Southwestern Guatemala and two Atlantic drainages, from Central Chiapas to Southeastern Guatemala. Their habitat is primarily tropical deciduous forest and thorn scrub forest, but are also found in pine-oak forest, with elevations from sea level to 1500 meters. In the wild, the animals are only active from April to mid-November, spending about an hour per day above the ground.
The nominate subspecies H. h. horridum is found in Mexico, from Sonora to Oaxaca. The Rio Fuerte beaded lizard (H. h. exasperatum) is found from southern Sonora to northern Sinaloa. The Black beaded lizard ( H. h. alvarezi) is found in the northern Chiapas and the depression of the Río Lagartero in Huehuetenango to northwestern Guatemala. The ranges of these three subspecies overlap, making them sympatric. The Motagua Valley subspecies (H. h. charlesbogerti) is the only allopatric one, separated from the nearest population (H. h. alvarezi) by 250 km of unsuitable habitat. The Montagua Valley beaded lizard is the rarest and most endangered subspecies; it is found only in the dry valley of the Río Motagua in the north-east of Guatemala; it is believed less than 200 of these animals exist in the wild.
While invertebrates are essentially immune to the effects of this venom, effects on vertebrates are more severe and varied. In mammals such as rats, major effects include a rapid reduction in carotid blood flow followed by a marked fall in blood pressure, respiratory irregularities, tachycardia and other cardiac anomalies, as well as hypothermia, edema, and internal hemorrhage in the gastrointestinal tract, lungs, eyes, liver, and kidneys. In humans, the effects of bites are associated with excruciating pain that may extend well beyond the area bitten and persist up to 24 hours. Other common effects of bites on humans include local edema (swelling), weakness, sweating, and a rapid fall in blood pressure. Beaded Lizards are immune to the effects of their own venom.
The compounds which have been studied in its saliva have pharmacological properties relating to diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and even HIV. This hormone was named exendin-3 and is marketed by Amylin Pharmaceuticals as the drug:Exenatide. One study done in 1996 revealed that it binds to cell receptors from breast cancer cells and may stop the growth of lung cancer cells.
Young lizards are seldom seen. It is believed they spend much of their early life underground, emerging at two to three years of age after gaining considerable size. In more than 40 years, only one neonate lizard has ever been sighted in the wild in Guatemala.
The beaded lizard is surrounded by myth and superstition in much of its native range. It is incorrectly believed, for example, that the lizard is more venomous than a rattlesnake, that it can cause lightning strikes with its tail, or make a pregnant woman miscarry by merely looking at it. As a result of this superstition, locals often kill the lizard on sight.
The seldom seen lizard is also poached for resale through the illegal exotic animal trade. It does not reproduce well in captivity, and its scarcity means a high price for collectors. As a direct result, the Beaded Lizard is protected by Mexican law under the category A (Threatened), and it dwells within the range of several protected areas. In Guatemala it is protected by national legislation, and part of their range is also within protected areas. It is listed on Appendix II of CITES.
Fewer than 200 individual animals remain in the unique dry forest habitat of the Montagua Valley and this subspecies of beaded lizard (H.h charlesborgeti) was facing extinction due to local extermination and loss of habitat for agricultural purposes. A conservation effort has been launched known as Project Heloderma in order to preserve the semi-arid habitat of the Motagua Valley by The Nature Conservancy and partners such as Zootropic, Fundacion Defensores de la Naturaleza, CONAP, the IRCF (International Reptile Conservation Foundation), Zoo Atlanta, and the San Diego Zoo. This effort has been successful in getting the Guatemalan government to list the beaded lizard under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as an Appendix I animal, making it illegal to export the species.