Pangolins: One of the World Strangest Animals
Pangolin. Photo: NRDC

Overview Pangolins

Pangolins are uniquely covered in tough, overlapping scales. These mammals eat ants and termites using an extraordinarily long, sticky tongue, and are able to quickly roll themselves up into a tight ball when they feel threatened. Eight different pangolin species can be found across Asia and Africa. Poaching for illegal wildlife trade and habitat loss have made these incredible creatures one of the most threatened groups of mammals in the world.

What do pangolins eat?

Pangolins eat ants, termites and larvae and are often known as "the scaly anteater." Because they have no teeth, pangolins pick up food with their sticky tongues, which can sometimes reach lengths greater than the animal’s body.

Taxonomy and status

There are eight species of pangolins. All pangolins belong to the genus Manis in the family Manidae, which is the only family within the order Pholidota. Although pangolins share similar characteristics with Xenarthrans (anteaters, armadillos, and sloths), they are in fact more closely related to the order Carnivora (cats, dogs, bears, etc.).

Asian pangolins:

  • Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) – Critically Endangered

  • Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) – Critically Endangered

  • Palawan pangolin (Manis culionensis) – Critically Endangered

  • Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) – Endangered

African pangolins:

  • White-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) – Endangered

  • Giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) – Endangered

  • Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) – Vulnerable

  • Black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla) – Vulnerable

Physical charactoristics of Pangolins

Pangolins: One of the World Strangest Animals
Photo: Positive news

Pangolin species vary in size from about 1.6kg (~3.5 lbs) to a maximum of about 33kg (~73 lbs). They vary in color from light to yellowish brown through olive to dark brown. Protective, overlapping scales cover most of their bodies. These scales are made from keratin — the same protein that forms human hair and fingernails. Overlapping like artichoke leaves, the scales grow throughout the life of a pangolin just like hair; scale edges are constantly filed down as pangolins dig burrows and tunnel through the soil in search of termites and ants. Pangolin undersides do not have scales, and are covered with sparse fur. The four Asian pangolins are distinguished from the African species by the presence of bristles which emerge from between the scales.

With small conical heads and jaws lacking teeth, pangolins have amazingly long, muscular, and sticky tongues that are perfect for reaching and lapping up ants and termites in deep cavities. Pangolins have poor vision, so they locate termite and ant nests with their strong sense of smell. A pangolin's tongue is attached near its pelvis and last pair of ribs, and when fully extended can be up to half the length of the animal's head and body. A pangolin’s stomach is muscular and has keratinous spines projecting into its interior. Usually containing small stones, the stomach mashes and grinds prey in much the same manner as a bird’s gizzard.

Pangolin limbs are stout and well adapted for digging. Each paw has five toes, and their forefeet have three long, curved, claws used to demolish the nests of termites and ants and to dig nesting and sleeping burrows. Pangolins shuffle on all four limbs, balancing on the outer edges of their forefeet and tucking their foreclaws underneath as they walk. They can run surprisingly fast, and will often rise on their hind limbs to sniff the air. Pangolins are also capable swimmers, and while some pangolin species such as the ground pangolin (Smutsia temmincki) are completely terrestrial, others, such as the black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla), are adept climbers, using their claws and semi-prehensile tails to grip bark and scale trees.

Reproduction and lifespan

Pangolins: One of the World Strangest Animals
Photo: The Guardian

Male and female pangolins differ in weight; in most species, males are 10-50 percent heavier than females. Pangolins reach sexual maturity at two years, and most pangolins give birth to a single offspring, though two and three young have been reported in the Asian species. When born, pangolins are about six inches long and weigh about 12 ounces (0.75 lbs). Their scales are soft and pale, and begin to harden by the second day. Pangolin mothers nurture their young in nesting burrows. A mother will protectively roll around her baby when sleeping or if threatened. Babies nurse for three to four months, but can eat termites and ants at one month. Infant pangolins will ride on the base of the mother’s tail as she forages for insects.

It is unknown how long pangolins can live in the wild, though pangolins have reportedly lived as long as twenty years in captivity.

The most trafficked mammal in the world?

They certainly are one of the most trafficked mammals in Asia and, increasingly, Africa. Pangolins are in high demand in countries like China and Vietnam. Their meat is considered a delicacy and pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine and folk remedies. All eight pangolin species are protected under national and international laws. But there is still growing international illegal trade in pangolins.

Based on reported seizures between 2011 and 2013, an estimated 116,990-233,980 pangolins were killed, which represents only the tip of the trade. Experts believe that seizures represent as little as 10 percent of the actual volume in pangolins in illegal wildlife trade.

Coronavirus and Pangolins

Pangolins have received global attention with the news that the COVID-19 pandemic likely came from pangolins in a Chinese wet market. Now, many people are learning about this little known creature for the first time and want to know more about pangolins and their connection to COVID-19.

A paper released in Nature gives us the most recent science. The study showed that pangolins were found to carry coronaviruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 (a.k.a COVID-19). The viruses were 88.5-92.4 % similar, which means we still cannot say definitively that pangolins were the intermediate host that passed SARS-CoV-2 to humans, but it is indeed possible. It certainly underscores the fact the trade/consumption of pangolins should be prohibited to avoid future zoonotic transmission, since we know they carry various strains of coronavirus.

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