What is a pangolin?
Pangolins are a group of Asian and African mammals that are covered in hard scales, curl up into a ball to defend themselves, and are sadly the most heavily trafficked animal in the world. They’ve got small heads but long snouts and even longer tongues for slurping up ants from inside ant nests, leading some people to call them scaly anteaters.
Pangolin tails are also covered in the same scale armour as the rest of their bodies, but their tails are strong too – some pangolins live in the trees and can use their tail as a fifth limb that’s easily strong enough to support their full bodyweight.
Ground pangolin (aka cape pangolin or Temminck’s pangolin) foraging during the day in Zimbabwe. © Christopher Scott/Getty
Are pangolins endangered?
There are eight pangolin species, four Asian and four African – though fossil evidence suggests that they evolved in Europe. They are all threatened species and listed in the IUCN Red List as either Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered.
Chinese pangolin, Manis pentadactyla – Critically Endangered
Indian pangolin / thick-tailed pangolin, Manis crassicaudata – Endangered
Sunda pangolin / Malayan pangolin, Manis javanica – Critically Endangered
Philippine pangolin, Manis culionensis – Endangered
Tree pangolin / white-bellied pangolin, Phataginus tricuspis – Vulnerable
Long-tailed pangolin / black-bellied pangolin, Phataginus tetradactyla – Vulnerable
Giant pangolin / giant ground pangolin, Smutsia gigantica – Vulnerable
Cape pangolin / ground pangolin / Temminck’s ground pangolin / South African pangolin / steppe pangolin, Smutsia temminckii – Vulnerable
An African pangolin species photographed in South Africa. © MyLoupe/UIG/Getty
Mammals with scales
The pangolin’s closest relatives are carnivores, but pangolins are the only mammals that are covered in scales.
Most of a pangolin’s head and tail are covered in horny, sharp and overlapping scales – the exceptions are the sides of the face, the inner parts of the legs, the throat and the belly. Like hair, the scales carry on growing throughout the animal’s life, though they are ground down when it digs and burrows in search of food.
Tree pangolin rolled into a defensive ball in Matusadona National Park, Zimbabwe. © Daryl Balfour/Getty
What are pangolin scales made of?
Pangolin scales are made of keratin, just like our finger nails, and make up 20 per cent of their body weight.
Even though pangolin scales are made of exactly the same stuff as your fingernails, these amazing animals are being slaughtered by their thousands because some people believe that their scales have magical medicinal properties.
For example in 2017, the government of Cameroon burned 8 tonnes of confiscated pangolin scales, which works out at around 15000 murdered animals.
You can read more about that here.
What does pangolin mean?
The word ‘pangolin’ comes from the Malay word ‘penggulung’, which means ‘one that rolls up’. When it is threatened, a pangolin will curl itself into a tight ball, which is impenetrable to predators.
A disturbed pangolin curling into ball. © Nigel Dennis/Getty
When is World Pangolin Day?
World Pangolin Day is on the third Saturday of February every year, and it’s a great opportunity to raise awareness about these incredible mammals and the threats that they face.
World Pangolin Day is also a great opportunity to show everyone how cute baby pangolins are! © Charles Van Zyl/EyeEm/Getty
What do pangolins eat?
Pangolins mostly eat ants and termites, although they will eat a few other invertebrates as well. A single pangolin can consume up to 20,000 ants a day. That’s about 73 million ants a year!
Most pangolins, like this cape pangolin, are nocturnal creatures that do most of their foraging at night. © Luke Massey/Getty
Pangolins are so well protected by their scales that very few predators are able to kill them. Typically the only predators that are able to eat pangolins are large cats like leopards, tigers and lions, but other powerful animals like hyenas can also sometimes break through.
But it’s not at all unusual for a pangolin’s scales to prove impenetrable, and a pride of lions will walk away from an unharmed pangolin after they’ve been unsuccessful for a while, leaving the pangolin to trundle away to safety.
Pangolin scales often bear scratches and other marks of previous unsuccessful attacks by predators. © Nigel Dennis/Getty
Smart pangolin adaptations
One of a pangolin’s more unusual adaptations to their ant-eating lives is that they can close their ears and nostrils using strong muscles, which helps protect them from ant attacks. What’s even more surprising about this is that pangolins use their noses to find ants in the first place, so it’s nostrils open for hunting and nostrils closed for eating.
A ground pangolin walking through the Kalahari desert. © Nigel Dennis/Getty
The world’s boniest tail
Pangolins are also unique in another way, as they have more vertebrae than any other animal. The species that are arboreal (white- and black-bellied, Indian, Philippine and Sunda pangolins) have semi-prehensile tails for climbing trees. Females use their tails to carry their young, too. The black-bellied pangolin’s tail has 46 or 47 vertebrae – the most of any animal.
Long-tailed pangolin (aka black-bellied pangolin) showing its tree climbing abilities. © Frans Lanting/Mint Images/Getty
How long is a pangolin’s tongue?
Pangolins have long, sticky tongues, which are often longer than their body and attached near its pelvis and last pair of ribs. And they need to be long to reach far inside ant nests. If a pangolin fully extends its tongue, it is longer than the animal’s head and body – some pangolin tongues are over 40cm long!
This is only the tip of a pangolin’s tongue – they can be up to 40cm long, perfect for getting inside ant nests! © Darren Bradley/Getty
What do pangolins smell like?
Pangolins don’t smell great! Special glands near the pangolin’s anus secrete a pungent fluid that is used for both marking territory and defence, not dissimilar to a skunk.
Pangolins are comfortable in the water and are surprisingly good swimmers. © hphimagelibrary/Gety
Why do pangolins swallow stones?
Pangolins don’t have teeth, so they can’t chew. Instead, they have keratinous spines in their stomach and swallow stones that help them grind up their food in much the same manner as a bird’s gizzard.
Pangolins have the curious and endearing habit of walking on their hind legs, with their clawed front paws held off the ground in front of them. © hphimagelibrary/Getty
Why are pangolins endangered?
Pangolins are hunted for meat, for use in traditional medicine and as fashion accessories, particularly in China and Vietnam. The large-scale illegal trade in Asian pangolins is drastically driving down their numbers, and pangolin trafficking is now huge (and illegal) business.
A long-tailed pangolin in Cameroon. © Fabian von Poser/Getty
Do pangolins have claws?
Pangolins have three claws on each foot. These tools enable the pangolin to rip into ant and termite nests, and help arboreal species to climb trees.
Want to find out what’s being done to save pangolins? Then check out this Discover Wildlife feature on the plan to save the Philippine pangolin!
Save the Philippine pangolin
Photo © George Steinmetz/Getty