Do you know ‘pangolin’ is actually a Malay word? In Malay, the alternative word for pangolin is pengguling or tenggiling, which means “one who rolls up”. So the name of the pangolin animal originates from its ability to roll up like a ball.
In her book “A Struggle to Save the Scaly Pangolins“, Emilia Goode said, the pangolins are the most trafficked animal in the world.
The most obvious feature of a pangolin is that its body is covered in glossy scales, which can make it look something like a pine cone.
Pangolin scales are actually a kind of hair, made from keratin. This is the same protein that makes up other creatures’ horns, hooves, and hair.
Pangolins are born with soft scales (to ensure their mothers are able to give birth without getting hurt), and over time they become much harder, like an amour of near impenetrable. The hard scales of a grown pangolin protects their outer body, and a sharp tail provides them an extra layer of protection.
Like some other animals, pangolins don’t run away or fight back when they see a predator. They simply curl up like a ball when there is danger nearby, and wait it out. This defensive tactic works extremely well, and predators as adept as lions tend to give up when faced with a curled up pangolin.
Other characteristics of pangolins
- Pangolins are nocturnal animals. They sleep during the daytime and rise to forage at night.
- Because of their diet of insects, the pangolin tongue is very long, allowing them to root around for insects living in holes.
- For a similar reason, pangolins have sharp claws for burrowing into mounds to find ants and termites, as well as help them climb trees.
- Pangolins have a special gland close to their anus that emits a foul-smelling chemical, much like a skunk.
- Pangolins have very short legs, which keeps their body and head close to the ground.
Range & habitat
Whilst all pangolins live inside tree holes or burrows, the three pangolin genera (Manis, Phataginus, and Smutsia) live in different regions of Africa and Asia in a range of habitats, made up of eight pangolin species in total:
The pangolins under the genus Manis, live in South & East Asia. There are a total of four Manis pangolin species alive today. These are:
- Indian pangolin: The Indian pangolin is also known as thick-tailed pangolin and lives in India.
- Chinese pangolin: The Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), a critically endangered species, is native to the northern Indian subcontinent, southern China, and northern parts of Southeast Asia. It has been enlisted in the IUCN Red List since 2014.
- Sunda pangolin: The Sunda pangolins live in Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Java.
- Philippine pangolin: The Philippine pangolin is also known as Palawan pangolin and it is native to the large island of Palawan in the northeast of the Philippines.
Phataginus pangolins are native to Africa. There are two pangolin species in this genus:
- Tree pangolin: Tree pangolins live in equatorial Africa. They are also known as white-bellied pangolin or three-cusped pangolin.
- Long-tailed pangolin: Long-tailed pangolins live in western and central Africa. They are also known as the African black bellied pangolin, and are the smallest of all African pangolin. African black bellied pangolin spend most of their lives in trees.
Smutsia pangolins also live in Africa. There are two species of pangolin in this genus:
- Giant pangolin: The giant pangolin is the largest in the pangolin family. The range of its habitat stretches from West Africa to Uganda.
- Ground pangolin: Ground pangolins are found in southern and eastern Africa. They are also known as Cape pangolins or Temminck’s pangolin.
Pangolins are insectivores, meaning they eat various kinds of insects. Pangolins mostly prefer ants and termites, though do also eat insect larvae.
A pangolin can eat up to 200 grams per day, which is around 20,000 ants in just one day! They use their sharp claws to dig into ant and termite burrows, and their long, sticky tongues help them to access their favourite foods.
Behaviour & lifestyle
As nocturnal animals pangolins are active at night, leaving their burrows to find insects. Pangolins don’t have good eyesight, relying instead on their excellent ability to smell and hear.
Pangolins are animals that prefer privacy over socialization living most of their lives on their own. A male pangolin only meets a female pangolin to mate. The mother raises the offspring on her own for up to two years, after which the youngsters leave the burrow to find their own way in life.
Fun pangolin facts
Here are some fun facts about pangolins :
- Larger pangolins can stretch their tongues out of their bodies up to 40 centimeters.
- Only the long-tailed pangolin remains active at day.
- While sleeping pangolins curl up like a ball. It is called volvation, a defensive posture in specific animals.
- Pangolins can dig tunnels up to 3.5 meters deep
- Pangolins are expert swimmers!
- Pangolins don’t have teeth.
- Pangolins eat small stones to help digest ants.
- When it’s time to mate female pangolins find suitable males to mate by smelling the male pangolin’s urine or feces. Nice!
Sadly there is significant international trade in endangered species, and pangolins are one of the most trafficked mammals in the world. Pangolin are a large part of the illegal wildlife trade, trafficked by the thousands each year for:
- Their scales, which are used in traditional Asian medicine
- Their meat, which is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam
- Their blood, which is considered a healing tonic in China and Vietnam
All eight species of pangolin are now protected under national laws and international treaties, and two pangolin species are listed by IUCN as Critically Endangered.
Meet the pangolin
We hope you enjoyed learning about the pangolin (and can now answer the question ‘what is a pangolin?’)!
Have you ever met this unique creature face-to-face? Please do tell us about your pangolin experience in the comment section below. Because those who care share!
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