What Is A Pangolin?

Overview

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

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Physical Characteristics

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 finger nails. 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. Unlike African pangolins, Asian pangolins also have thick bristles that emerge from between their 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 is longer than the animal’s head and body. At rest a pangolin’s tongue retracts into a sheath in its chest cavity. 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 African ground pangolin (Manis temmincki) are completely terrestrial, others, such as the African tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis), are adept climbers, using their claws and semi-prehensile tails to grip bark and scale trees.

Taxonomy

There are eight pangolin species. All pangolins belong to the genus Manis in the family Manidae, which is the only family within the order Pholidota. Pangolins’ closest living relatives are the Xenarthrans – anteaters, armadillos, and sloths.

The Asian pangolins include:

  • Indian or thick-tailed pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) – Conservation status Near Threatened
  • Chinese or Formosan pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) – Endangered
  • Malayan or Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) – Endangered
  • Palawan or Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis) – Near Threatened

The African pangolins include:

  • Cape or Temminck’s ground pangolin (Manis temminckii)
  • Tree or African white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) – Near Threatened
  • Giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) – Near Threatened
  • Long-tailed or black-bellied pangolin (Uromanis tetradactyla)

Distribution and Habitat

Four pangolin species occur across Asia: the Indian pangolin, the Chinese or Formosan pangolin, the Malayan or Sunda pangolin, and the Palawan pangolin. Four species are found in Africa south of the Sahara Desert: the Cape or ground pangolin, the tree pangolin, the giant pangolin, and the long-tailed pangolin. The four Asian pangolins are distinguished from the African species by the presence of bristles which emerge from between the scales.

Pangolins are found in a variety of habitats including tropical and flooded forests, thick brush, cleared and cultivated areas, and savannah grassland; in general they occur where large numbers of ants and termites are found. Asian pangolins in particular are threatened by loss of habitat due to expanding agriculture and other human uses. Pangolins dig deep burrows for sleeping and nesting that contain circular chambers. Large chambers have been discovered in terrestrial pangolin burrows that were big enough for a human to crawl inside and stand up. Some pangolin species such as the Malayan pangolin also sleep in the hollows and forks of trees and logs.

Life Span

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

Behavior

These solitary mammals are nocturnal and highly secretive, thus it is difficult for scientists to study them in the wild, and many mysteries remain about their behavior and habits. Some pangolin species such as the Chinese pangolin sleep in underground burrows during the day, and others including African tree pangolins and Malayan pangolins are known to sleep in trees. They emerge in the evening to forage for insects. Pangolins are well adapted for digging: they dig burrows with their strong front legs and claws, using their tails and rear legs for support and balance. Tunneling underground, they excavate the sides and roofs of passages by pushing up and from side to side with their tough scaled bodies. They use their front and hind feet to back accumulated soil toward the burrow entrance, and vigorously kick dirt out of the entrance up to a meter or more.

Chinese pangolins (Manis pentadactyla) in temperate areas spend the winter months in deep burrows. The winter burrows are strategically excavated near termite nests that provide a lasting food source. In Chinese legend pangolins are said to travel all around the world underground, and in the Cantonese language the name for pangolins translates to “the animal that digs through the mountain,” or “Chun-shua-cap,” which translates to “scaly hill-borer.”

While pangolins species share many characteristics and habits, there are also differences. African tree pangolins (Manis tricuspis) are arboreal tree climbers, while African ground pangolins (Manis temmincki) are terrestrial ground dwellers. And some, including all three Asian species, are opportunistic and can be found foraging both in trees and on the ground. Indian pangolins found in Sri Lanka reportedly live in the rain forest canopy where fruit and flowers that attract ants occur, instead of at ground level where it is very dark and the food supply is limited. Some pangolin species even have semi-prehensile tails—they can grasp and hang from branches with their tails, which aids them in climbing.

Pangolin scales provide good defense against predators. When threatened, pangolins can quickly curl into a ball, protecting their defenseless undersides. They also deter predators by hissing and puffing, and lashing their sharp edged tails. Pangolins, dependent on their strong sense of smell, identify their territories by scent marking with urine and secretions from a special gland, and by scattering feces. Scientists suspect that these odors advertise dominance and sexual status, and may also help individuals recognize each other.

Diet

Pangolins live predominantly on a diet of ants and termites, which they may supplement with various other invertebrates including bee larvae, flies, worms, earthworms, and crickets. This specialist diet makes them extremely difficult to maintain in captivity—they often reject unfamiliar insect species or become ill when fed foreign food. Wild pangolins locate insect nests using a well developed sense of smell. Voraciously digging ants and termites from mounds, stumps, and fallen logs with their claws, they use their extremely long sticky tongues to capture and eat them.

Pangolins’ insatiable appetite for insects gives them an important role in their ecosystem: pest control. Estimates indicate that one adult pangolin can consume more than 70 million insects annually. Pangolins have special muscles that seal their nostrils and ears shut, protecting them from attacking insects. They also have special muscles in their mouths which prevent ants and termites from escaping after capture.

Reproduction

Male and female pangolins are sexually dimorphic: the sexes differ in weight. In most species, males are 10-50 percent heavier than females, while Indian pangolins can be up to 90 percent heavier. 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. Gestation periods range from 65-70 days (Indian pangolin) to 139 days (Cape and Tree pangolins). When born, pangolins are about six inches long and weigh about 12 ounces (.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. At that time the infant begins to accompany the mother outside of the burrow, riding on the base of her tail as she forages for insects (pictured right).

A list of references for the information used on this page and on SavePangolins.org is available on our References page.

Photos credits (from top to bottom):  Darren Ellis; Keri Parker; unknown; Julie Scardina/Sea World Busch Gardens; unknown.