Pangolin are unusual looking animals covered in armor with long snouts and even longer tongues. Often called scaly anteaters, they are the only mammals that are covered in scales.
Pangolins inhabit grasslands, savannah woodlands, rocky areas and dry and sandy habitats. There are eight species of pangolins – four in Africa and four in Asia. African pangolins include the Three-Cusped or African White-Bellied pangolin, the Giant Ground pangolin, the Cape or Temminck’s pangolin, and the Long-Tailed or Black-Bellied pangolin. Asian pangolins include the Thick-tailed or Indian pangolin, the Phillipine pangolin, the Sunda pangolin and the Chinese pangolin.
Pangolin bodies have hard, brown scales made of keratin – the same as human hair and nails, rhino horns and lion claws. Their scales cover their entire body except their bellies, foreheads and the inner sides of their legs. Pangolin males are usually much larger than female pangolins.
Pangolin feet have five toes. The first and last digits on their front feet are smaller than their other toes. The middle three toes are well developed. Their front legs are shorter than their back legs. Pangolins have sharp, curved, front claws used for excavating ant and termite nests, and for removing bark from trees and logs to expose prey. A few pangolin species also have long claws on their back feet.
Some pangolins have prehensile tails that they use for hanging in trees and to balance. Pangolins have an excellent sense of smell. They have poor vision. Pangolins do not have external ears, but they are able to hear. Pangolins do not have teeth. They swallow stones and sand to help grind their meals and aid digestion. Pangolins are bipedal, walking on their hind legs.
Pangolins are insectivores, feeding only on insects. They eat 19 different species of ants and termites. Pangolins eat about 90 times each night, up to 70 million insects each year. Each feeding last about one minute. Their long, rod-shaped, sticky tongues are longer than their entire bodies. Unlike human tongues, pangolin tongues are not connected in their mouths but at the bottom of their rib cage. When not in use, their tongues are stored in their chest cavities. Pangolins stick their tongues into insect tunnels to extract their prey. They are able to keep their ears and nostrils closed to protect themselves from the insects.
Pangolins are nocturnal, active at night. Most pangolins live a solitary life. They sleep during the day in underground burrows or in trees, depending on the species. Pangolins usually use abandoned warthog, aardvark and porcupine burrows, rather than digging their own. Some pangolins live in caves, termite holes, between rocks, or in shrubs or piles of debris. Pangolins are capable swimmers.
Males pangolins attract female pangolins by marking their territory with urine and waiting for a female to find them. Mother pangolins give birth to one baby pangolin following an up to 150 days gestation period. Baby pangolins spend their first days in their mother's den, often alone while the mother searches for food. If the mother pangolin senses danger, she will move her babies to a different den. The soft scales of baby pangolins harden rapidly. When old enough, baby pangolins travel on the base of their mother's tail. Baby pangolins drink their mother's milk until they are three to four months old. They begin to also eat insects at about one month old. Pangolins reach sexual maturity at about 2 years old.
Pangolins are naturally preyed upon by tigers, lions and leopards. They defend their sensitive body areas by curling into balls exposing their sharp scales. Like skunks, pangolins can also spray predators with a smelly substance produced in their anal glands. This scent is also used to mark their territories, along with feces and urine. If caught by a predator, pangolins will thrash around using their tail muscles. Pangolin mothers will ball themselves up around their babies to shield them.
Pangolins can live up to 20 years in the wild.
THREATS TO PANGOLINS
Pangolins are endangered due to extensive hunting for folk medicine ingredients in Africa and China. They are also hunted for their meat, and their skin is used in the fashion industry. Loss of habitat due to increasing development is also taking its toll on pangolins. All pangolin species are thought to be in rapid decline. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world. Over 100,000 pangolins are captured every year from the wild.