What is a Pangolin

This mammal looks like a gigantic walking pine cone, and its name sounds like “penguin” and “mandolin” combined. When threatened, it curls up into a spiny ball that few predators dare paw at- those sharp spines can really lacerate assailants. It’s similar in lifestyle to an anteater or aardvark, with defenses somewhat like an armadillo, yet the pangolin has no close living relatives. Yes, the pangolin is truly an odd and fascinating creature!

Pangolins were once thought to be members of the order Xenarthra, along with anteaters, armadillos and sloths. DNA studies have shown, however, that these so-called “spiny anteaters” actually make up a unique order called Pholidota, which is a branch of the carnivores. Fossil evidence shows that pangolins were formerly widely distributed; they show up in the fossil records of North America and central Europe.

Today, there are either seven or eight species of pangolin in the world, ranging across equatorial and southern Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. (The discrepancy arises from a dispute about the Philippine pangolin, Manis culionensis, which may or may not be only a subspecies of the Sunda/Malayan pangolin, Manis javanica.) The largest are the Giant Pangolins of equatorial Africa, which can be nearly five feet long and weigh up to 40 pounds. At the other end of the scale are the arborial Long-tailed Pangolins of Uganda, Senegal, and Angola, weighing in at only 3-5 pounds. These little animals are almost three feet long, but 2 feet of that is tail- hence the name!

All pangolins are insectivores; they feed only on colonial insects such as ants and termites. Most are ground-dwellers, but the Long-tailed Pangolin spends all of its time in the trees. These animals use their powerful fore-arms tipped with three hefty claws to tear into anthills, tree bark, and termite mounds. Then, their long, narrow, sticky tongues dart in to capture insects, which are swallowed whole. Pangolins, like anteaters, lack teeth. (This is a wonderful example of convergent evolution.) In order to help grind and digest their food, pangolins’ stomachs contain small pebbles, similar to those found in a bird’s gizzard.

When threatened, pangolins have an entire arsenal of defenses. They are known for rolling up to protect their soft-skinned bellies; however, pangolins also flick their sharp-plated tails at attackers, and can spray a noxious liquid from their backsides like a skunk. Leopards, lions, and hyenas may eat a pangolin, given the chance, but the biggest threat comes from humans. In addition to habitat loss, pangolins suffer ruinous rates of hunting and poaching throughout their range. In Africa, pangolin is one of the most popular types of bush-meat, and the scales are used for magic (particularly lion-repelling spells and love potions). Asian pangolins suffer the misfortune of being a common ingredient in Chinese medicine; the scales are said to help nursing mothers produce milk, to promote blood circulation and to be an aphrodisiac. Pangolin meat is also served in Chinese restaurants across Asia.

Pangolins don’t reproduce very quickly. African pangolin species only have one baby at a time; Asian species have up to three. Most species breed no more than once a year. When a mother pangolin senses a threat, she folds her young close to her stomach before curling up around them. Babies are nursed for 3 to 4 months, although they begin to eat insects at just one month of age.

Pangolins are fascinating animals. Though not yet critically endangered, numbers of each of the species are dwindling fast in the face of human predation and habitat loss. They need to be better protected now, before it becomes an emergency!

The American Zoo


The African Wildlife Foundation