In the last decade, it is estimated that over 1 million pangolins were poached from the wild.  World Pangolin Day, on February 17th, is a good time to reflect on this incredibly unique and endangered mammal.

Fascinating Pangolin Facts

  • One adult pangolin consumes an average of 70 million insects in one year – great pest control! They dig them up with their long claws and slurp them up with a tongue that’s longer than they are!
  • Pangolins don’t have any teeth! Instead, they have keratinous scales lining their stomachs. These, along with small pebbles, help to break up food that is swallowed whole.
  • Pangolins can use their tails to support themselves while they walk upright on their back legs. They can also use them to defend themselves or to compete for mates.
  • Pangolin babies hitch rides on mom’s back and tail.
  • Even though they may resemble armadillos with their scaly plates, they are actually not very closely related, except that both are mammals.
  • The name pangolin comes from the Malay word “penggulung” which means “one who rolls”. This describes a pangolins tendency to roll into a ball when threatened, using the scales on its back as protection.
  • The earliest pangolin fossil dates back to the Paleocene. While extant species today are only found in Asia or Africa, fossils have been found of extinct species from North America.
  • The pangolin is one of Sir David Attenborough’s favorite creatures. In his film “Attenborough’s Ark”, he lists the pangolin as one of ten species that he would save from extinction if he could. He recounts a story about a strange scaly creature called a Sunda Pangolin that he rescued from the cooking pot while filming in Asia early in his career. These creatures, which are similar to anteaters, have hard scales made of keratin, the same material human nails are made from. They are heavily hunted for use in black market medicine in Vietnam and are highly prized for meat. “It is one of the most endearing animals I have ever met,” said Sir David. “Huge numbers of them are illegally exported, mainly to China. In the last 15 years, over half of the population of Sunda Pangolins have disappeared” he said in 2012.

Victorian engraving of an anteater. Digitally restored image from a mid-19th-century Encyclopaedia.

What is a pangolin and where can you find one?

Pangolins are very unique mammals, belonging to their own order (Pholidota), family (Manidae), and genus (Manis). There are only eight separate species of pangolins, four are found in Asia and four are found in sub-Saharan Africa.

Pangolins are primarily nocturnal and depending on the species, pangolins can be found in either grassland type environments or forested ones. Some species, like the black-bellied Pangolin, are almost entirely arboreal, spending most of their lives in trees. Pangolins have long claws that they use to enhance and enlarge burrows made by other animals (or make their own) and these are where they live and raise their young.

These animals can vary in size from about 3 pounds up to 75 pounds! They are covered with large, overlapping scales except on their underside, which is sparsely covered in coarse fur. They can be varying shades of earth tones – ranging from dark yellow to brown. Asian species have bristly hairs that stick up between their scales while African species do not. Pangolins have small, conical heads and a small snout. They have large, muscular tails and five toes on each of their legs. The middle three toes of their front feet possess long, curved claws.

Who are pangolins related to and what do they eat?

While pangolins may resemble creatures such as aardvarks, armadillos, or anteaters, they are actually most closely related to animals that are found in the order Carnivora, such as cats and dogs! However, like aardvarks, armadillos, and anteaters, pangolins are insectivores – primarily eating ants and termites. Therefore convergent evolution is a good explanation for the similarities between pangolins and these creatures – the need to eat the same type of insects led to the independent evolution of certain structures to help them do so! A pangolin has a long, sticky tongue that is attached near its pelvis. When fully extended, this tongue can be longer than the entire body of the animal itself! This allows it to probe anthills and termite mounds for its prey. They can also use their claws to dig into the ground or pry up bark in search of food.

The Tragic Truth About Pangolin Poaching

Every one of the world’s species of pangolin is threatened by poaching, with all eight on the IUCN’s Red List. The four Asian species are all listed as either endangered or critically endangered. In the last decade, it is estimated that over 1 million pangolins were poached from the wild. Therefore, pangolins are considered one of the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world. They are sought after for their meat, which is served as a delicacy and a way to exhibit status in some parts of the world. Additionally, their scales are falsely believed to have some use in traditional medicines. They are dried and mixed with a variety of other substances to “cure” a number of ills including nervousness, malarial fever, demon possession, and deafness.

pangolin skin

Finally, like most endangered species, pangolin habitat is disappearing rapidly through conversion to agriculture and tree plantations such as oil palm.

The following video by National Geographic is a sobering reminder of their fate. Warning: contains some graphic footage, not for young viewers.

What can be done to help pangolins?

Education and awareness are the first steps to helping the pangolins. As these creatures are solitary and secretive, even biologists don’t know much about their habits and characteristics. They are continuing to develop innovative ways to study these animals and learn more about them. You can utilize resources like those found below to learn more about pangolins and how you can help with their conservation.

Temminck's Ground Pangolin

Learn More About Pangolins

Check out the following resources to learn more about pangolins, their habits, and habitats and why they are all critically endangered and threatened with extinction.