What makes a pangolin?

Six things you probably didn't know about the pangolin.


1. It is very, very scaly. Most of a pangolin’s head and tail are covered in horny, sharp and overlapping scales made of keratin – 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.


2. It can close off its ears and nose. Special muscles enable the pangolin to close its ears and nostrils to protect it from pesky insects.

3. It has a spiny stomach and no teeth. A pangolin’s digestion is aided by pebbles and spine-like protrusions in its stomach. Its powerful sense of smell is its main method of locating the ants and termites it mostly feeds on – other invertebrates may also be taken. The animal also possesses a long, sticky tongue – but no teeth. 

4. It has three-clawed feet. These tools enable the pangolin to rip into ant and termite nests, and help arboreal species to climb trees.

5. It makes unpleasant smells. Special glands near the anus secrete a pungent fluid that is used for both marking territory and defence.


6. It has a record-breaking number of tail vertebrae. 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.