Looking like scaly anteaters with the defense mechanisms of armadillos, pangolins are actually peaceful, unobtrusive creatures with the unfortunate reputation of being the world’s most trafficked animal. Pangolins are hunted for their body parts and scales, often used in traditional medicinal remedies. These fascinating creatures get their name from the Malay word “pengguling”, which means “to roll over” – fitting because pangolins roll into a ball to protect themselves when threatened.
What do we know about these unique animals? What are the challenges that they face? We discover more about pangolins in this informative article.
1. Pangolin scales actually do not have any medicinal properties
Their scales are made from keratin, which is the same material human hair and fingernails are made of. These scales cover a pangolin’s whole body except for their soft belly, which is covered in soft hair. When threatened, pangolins curl up into a ball with their hard scales forming a sort of armor on the outside, protecting their delicate insides. Up to 15 percent of a pangolin’s weight can be made up of its scales.
There are eight kinds of pangolins, and all of them are hunted and trafficked in the exotic animal trade. Pangolins can grow up to 100 cm long and 35 kg in weight at their largest, while the smaller species are just 30 cm long and less than 2 kg.
2. Pangolins eat ants, like anteaters
They may not be closely related to anteaters, but they have long snouts and tongues that are used to eat ants and termites. Pangolin tongues are connected to the bottom of the ribcage and stored in the chest cavity. When unfurled, a pangolin’s tongue is longer than its head and body combined.
Pangolins have evolved traits that make them the best at eating ants and termites. They have powerful front claws that they use to dig anthills and termite mounds, and they have the ability to close their noses and ears to keep insects out while they eat.
3. Pangolins don’t just curl up into a ball to defend themselves
They also have a gland near the base of their tails that they use to release a foul smelling fluid. This fluid is also used to mark their territory. Besides that, they have long, strong tails that can be used to strike enemies. A pangolin’s scales are sharp – using the scales on their tails, they can lash out and cut anything that is trying to attack them.
Pangolin tails are even strong enough to support a pangolin’s full body weight, as can be seen in some tree-dwelling pangolins. They use their tails as an extra limb to help them get around and to climb trees. Female pangolins use their tails to carry their babies.
4. Pangolins scales are so strong they are very hard to kill
Pangolins are nocturnal and mostly spend their time on the ground, exceptions being arboreal pangolins that live in trees. When they are seen in the day, even if they are seen by predators most are unable to kill them for food. The only predators of pangolins are large, powerful animals like tigers, lions and leopards, but even then a pangolin is able to survive being attacked by a pride of lions, leaving unscathed once the big cats have given up.
5. Each pangolin eats up to 70 million insects a year
Pangolins are insectivores that eat mostly ants and termites. They don’t have teeth, instead they slurp the insects up with their long sticky tongues and swallow them as they are. They swallow small pebbles to help them digest their food like birds, and they have spines and protrusions in their lower stomachs that serve a similar purpose.
Pangolins have poor eyesight, but they don’t really need to see well to be able to find their food. They make up for it by having a stellar sense of smell and sound, which is useful in finding termites as termite mounds excrete methane from the termite digestive process.
6. Pangolin babies are called pangopups
Pangolins are solitary most of the time, only spending time together when mating and raising young. Five months after mating, exactly one live pangopup is born measuring about 15 cm and 400 grams. When they are born, pangolin scales are soft but they start to harden as soon as they are out of the womb.
Pangolin babies are weaned off their mother’s milk at four months, but they start eating insects at one month. They ride on their mother’s tail to get around, and if the mother child pair encounters danger, the mother pangolin wraps herself around her baby in a ball to protect it.
7. Pangolins don’t do well in captivity, making it difficult to study them
On average, pangolins reach sexual maturity around two years old. However, not much else is known about pangolins because captivity is very traumatic for pangolins. Captured pangolins experience depression, stress and early mortality. The oldest known captive pangolin lived to 19 years old. It is also difficult to feed pangolins in captivity due to their exclusively insect diet.
8. Pangolins are listed as threatened with extinction according to the IUCN Red List
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and other conservationists are concerned that pangolins will be pushed to extinction because of illegal hunting and poaching. In some parts of the world, pangolin meat is a delicacy. Their scales are used in traditional remedies and fashion accessories. Pangolin scales protect them from nearly every predator except humans.
Pangolins enjoy time in the water. They are surprisingly good at swimming.
Pangolins may dig for food, but they don’t dig their own burrows. Instead, they use the abandoned burrows of other animals like aardvarks, porcupines and warthogs. They also live in caves or termite holes.
Pangolins are actually bipedal. They walk on their hind legs, while their front legs and tail are used as counterbalance and held off the ground.
Pangolins are actually closely related to carnivores like bears, cats and dogs.