Amazing Species Profile: Pangolins!

Today (20th February 2016) is the fifth annual World Pangolin Day and the Sunda pangolin was recently voted as the world’s 3rd  most underrated species in an Arkive poll, so what better time to celebrate and raise awareness of the amazing  animals we call PANGOLINS!

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Pangolin – Photo Credit – Judy Hurd / The Telegraph

Etymology and Taxonomy

Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, are a fascinating group of extinct and living mammals belonging to the order Pholidota. Although they are somewhat similar in appearance and lifestyle to giant anteaters, sloths and armadillos (all members of the Superorder Xenartha), recent genetic evidence suggests that pangolins are more closely related to members of the order Carnivora such as cats and dogs. It is thought that Pholidota diverged from Carnivora around 70 million ago and together they form the ‘Ferae’ clade.

There are eight species of pangolins in the lone surviving family Manidae; four native to Asia and four to Africa. The Asian species include the Chinese (Manis pentadactyla), Sunda (Manis javanica), Indian (Manis crassicaudata) and Philippine (Manis culionensis) pangolins; while the African species include the Tree (Phataginus tricuspis), Cape (Smutsia temminickii), Long-tailed (Uromanis tetradactyla) and Giant ground (Smutsia gigantea) pangolins. The common name pangolin comes from the Malay word ‘pangguling’, which translates as ‘those that roll up’ in reference to their infamous body-curling defence behaviour.

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Curled Up Pangolin, Pretending to be a Dragon Egg. Photo Credit – Masteraah / EOL

Ecology and Reproduction

Pangolins range from being 30 to 100 centimetres long depending on the species and although these species have many features in common, they have adapted to survive in a range of environments from tropical forests in South Asia to dry woodlands and open savannahs in Africa. The arboreal African long-tailed pangolin spends much of its time in trees and uses its large curves claws to climb and grasp branches, whilst other species such as the Chinese pangolin prefer the comfort of a subterranean home and will dig underground burrows up to 3.5 metres deep! As well as arboreal and terrestrial adventures, pangolins are also surprisingly capable swimmers.With the exception of the long-tailed pangolin, all pangolin species are nocturnal and rely on their heightened smell and hearing to hunt for ant hills and termite mounds.

Pangolins are largely solitary and only seek out other pangolins for mating. This can be interesting, as males are generally much larger than the females, and in the case of the Indian pangolin, the male is almost twice the size of the female! When baby pangolins are born, their scales are soft and pale but start to harden within a few days. Pangolin mothers are very protective of their young and will curl around their offspring if threatened. When they’re not carrying them around on their back that is…

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Pangolin Mother & Child. Photo Credit -Firdia Lisnawati / AP

Rolling Tanks

A defining feature of pangolins is that they’re the only mammals to possess overlapping layers of protective scales made of keratin, the same structural material that hair and nails are made of. These scales account for about 20% of the pangolin’s body weight, so they must have a pretty useful function. When a pangolin senses danger, it is able to roll up into a tight ball, keeping its soft underbelly hidden and transforming itself in a sharp armoured ball.

As well as having the ability to become an impenetrable sphere, pangolins are also armed with giant sharp claws and a scaly tail that can be whipped at any perceived threats. Similar to skunks, pangolins can also release a foul smelling scent from glands near their anus to ward off any persistent predators.

Those Claws Ain’t Made for Walking

Pangolins are insectivores, feeding mainly on ants and termites but also other invertebrates such as flies, worms and crickets. Similar to giant anteaters and aardvarks, pangolins have adapted special tools that have made them experts at hunting and catching ant and termites. First of all, their front legs have developed three long claws that are perfect for smashing into ant hills and termite mounds, as well as for pulling bark off trees to gain access to any grubs underneath. These claws are useful for arboreal pangolins such as the long-tailed pangolin, who also possess a semi-prehensile tail to aid in tree-climbing. However, while these long and curved claws are good for smashing and climbing, they make walking on all fours difficult. Instead, pangolins often drag their front legs or simply walk on just their hindlegs, using their long tails as a counterbalance like a T-Rex!

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If a ‘T-Rex’-walking, scale-armoured, stink-spewing, anthill-smasher wasn’t impressive enough, pangolins have adapted extremely long tongues for feeding on ants and termites from within their colonies. Unlike humans and other mammals, their tongue is detached from the hyoid bone and instead attaches to spurs near the pelvis, allowing the tongue to reach the length of the pangolin’s own body when fully extended! The pangolin’s salivary glands also coat the tongue in sticky saliva which is used to catch ants and termites. Whilst catching termites, they are able to activate special muscles in their nostrils and ears to hold them shut and protect them from attackers, whilst also activating muscles in the mouth that prevents captured insects from escaping their fate. As pangolins lack teeth, instead of chewing their insect meals, they swallow small stones which grind down the ants and termites inside their stomach.

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The Giant Pangolin’s Giant Tongue. Credit – MangyCoyote / Tumblr

Pangolins in Peril

Sadly, all 8 species of pangolin are currently at serious risk of extinction. The biggest threats to pangolins are habitat loss due to massive deforestation and their removal from the wild by illegal poachers. Poachers capture pangolins so they can sell their meat and scales for use in ‘traditional medicine’ as it is incorrectly believed that they have the ability to cure many ailments including cancer and arthritis. Their scales have also been used to make decorative clothes and jewellery.

Pangolins one of the world’s most trafficked animals, with sources claiming they may account for up to 20% of the illegal wildlife trade. An estimated 100,000 pangolins are captured and exported every year from Africa and Asia to counties such as China and Vietnam, but it is believed that the true scale of pangolin exportation may be higher.

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The Result of Pangolin Poaching. Photo Credit – Dan Challender / Scientific American

Pangolins are legally protected by both national and international legislation, but this doesn’t seem to be deterring the poachers and today the world’s only keratin-plated mammals are currently at risk of being “eaten to extinction”. Whilst curling up into an armoured ball may deter fearsome predators such as lions and hyenas, it doesn’t do much to stop poachers. This is why they need our help.

What You can Do to Help

First of all, don’t eat pangolins and don’t wear pangolins. Assuming you’re already helping by not doing those two things, you can also help out by raising awareness. There are a number of other organisations and campaigns working hard to combat poaching and protect wild pangolins:

People for Pangolins is a UK-based group that aims to raise awareness for pangolin conservation. If you fancy doing something physical, you can join in with their pangolin body-curling inspired #PumpIt4Pangolins 2016 challenge: “This year we challenge you to do 20 abdominal crunches and donate £5.00 to pangolin conservation. Proceeds will be used to support on the ground pangolin conservation led by Save Vietnam’s Wildlife.”

Thanks for reading!

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3 thoughts on “Amazing Species Profile: Pangolins!

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