Most of you have probably never heard the name pangolin before! So it is safe to assume that you know nothing about the pangolins! Well, let’s rectify that!
Often mistaken for reptiles, the Pangolins are the only mammals with scales. They are also called scaly anteaters.
The name comes from the word “pengguling” from the Malay (National language of Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia) and means “something that rolls up.”
At first glance, the pangolins look more like an anteater ready for a medieval battle, where the scales act as an armor!
The Pangolins Family
There is a total of 8 species of pangolins, which are all listed as threatened in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The pangolins are scattered on two continents:
- Africa: Black-bellied, White-bellied, Giant Ground, and Temminck’s Ground Pangolins.
- Asia: Chinese, Sunda, Philippine and Indian Pangolins.
The habitat of the pangolins consists of sandy soil of the woodlands and the savannas, and preferably close to the water. These scaly anteaters are found in Southern, Central, and East Africa as well as China and Southeast Asia.
The size of the pangolins varies considerably depending on the species. The largest is the Giant Ground Pangolin, which weighs between 30-40 lbs (14-18 kg) and the smallest, is the Black-bellied Pangolin that weighs only 4-6 pounds (2-3 kg).
The males are bigger than the females, and they weigh up to 50% more, except the Indian Pangolin where the weight difference reaches 90%!
The Pangolins are nocturnal creatures that sleep during the day, curled up into a ball and hunt at night. The only exception is the Black-bellied Pangolin, which is active during the day.
The Black-bellied Pangolin has a prehensile tail used for climbing trees and hanging from branches. This is the only species of pangolins that live in trees all the other species live in burrows.
The pangolins predators are the lions, leopards, hyenas and humans.
Mysterious Creatures of the Night
The pangolins are by their nature very secretive and solitary animals. Furthermore, these scaly anteaters are elusive creatures of the night. Therefore, not much research has been done on the pangolins. As a result, their lifespan in the wild is a mystery, whereas, in captivity, it has been reported to be around 20 years.
As for their numbers, not much is known about the population density, besides the fact that it has been declining, especially the Asian species due mainly to illegal trade.
The pangolins are insectivorous, which means that their diet is made exclusively of termites and ants. A single pangolin can eat up to 70 million of insects per year! Awesome pest control tool isn’t it?
Since these anteaters have no teeth, they ingest small stones to help grind the termites and the ants.
The pangolins have a very long tongue and when fully extended it reaches a length of 16 inches (40 cm) with its anchor point located deep in the chest cavity.
The large salivary glands situated on the tongue secrete a sticky substance, which is used to imprison the ants and the termites.
The pangolins have an appalling eyesight. However, on the other hand, they have an excellent sense of smell and hearing (even though it has no external ears), and they rely on both to locate termites and ants.
The pangolins have four short legs. Their two front legs are fitted with very sharp and large curved claws. The purpose of these long claws is to excavate anthills and termites mounds and to pull back the bark off the trees to find insects. Because of the presence of these long nails, the front legs cannot be used for walking. Therefore, these scaly anteaters have to rely on their back legs for walking and use their tails to counterbalance their torso.
The scales, which cover the skin of the pangolins are made of keratin, the same protein found in our fingernails, hairs, and also in the rhino horns. The scales account for up to 20% of the total pangolin weight.
The scales are very hard. However, for a newborn pangolin, the scales are soft and white, and start to harden and darken within of few days after birth.
Armed and Dangerous!
As a defense mechanism, when the pangolins feel threatened they roll up into a ball. The scales act as an armor and they hide their face under their tail. If needed, they will use their tails as an extra measure to protect themselves since the scales are very sharp, which can inflict severe injuries on its assailants.
The pangolins secrete a strong noxious acid from the glands near the anus in an attempt to deter its predators. However, they are unable to spray the liquid. The odor is similar to that of a skunk.
Did you know that the pangolins are the most traded mammals on the planet! The illicit trade of the pangolins on the wildlife black market constitutes up to 20% of all the sales! The price on the black market of the scales can reach up 3,000 USD/kg (1,500 USD/lb)!
The biggest threat to the pangolins is the illegal trade. Each year, roughly, 100,000 pangolins are captured from across Asia and Africa, and shipped mostly to China and Vietnam, where their meat is considered to be a delicacy and their scales are used in traditional medicine and folk remedies.
Traditional Chinese medicine uses the scales as a treatment to reduce swelling, stimulate lactation and treat asthma. There are no scientific proofs to support the claims that the scales (which consist mainly of keratin like the fingernails and hairs) have any medicinal or curative properties.
The pangolins are by far amongst the least adorable animals that you might encounter while on a safari. Regardless, the scaly anteaters are the most hunted mammals on earth because of the high demand for their meat and scales on the black market.
Public awareness about the detrimental effects of illegal trade is the key to helping protect the pangolins from extinction.
The pangolins are just the tip of the iceberg of what the African continent has to offer to its visitors, if you are interested in boosting your knowledge about the African wildlife, click here.