Pangolin (in Latin Pholidota) is the only mammal on the planet that is completely covered with scales. The name “pangolin” in Malay means “rolling up into a ball”. This technique is used by animals in case of danger. In the past, they were often called scaly anteaters. There are eighteen rows of scales and they look like tiles on a roof.
Species origin and description
Pangolins appeared about 60 million years ago during the Paleocene, 39 of the most primitive varieties date back to about 50 million years ago. Species Eomanis and Eurotamandua are known from fossils found at the Messel site, Eocene. These animals were different from today’s lizards.
A curious fact! The contents found in the well-preserved stomach of Eomanis at Messel show the presence of insects and a plant. Scientists have suggested that pangolins originally ate vegetables and accidentally swallowed a few insects.
Prehistoric lizards did not have protective scales, and the head was different from the head of modern lizards. They were more like an armadillo. Another family of pangolins that appeared at the end of the Eocene was the genus of the Patriomanids. The two genera it contains, Cryptomanis and Patriomanis, already had characteristics typical of modern pangolins, but still retained features of primitive mammals.
By the Miocene, after about 30 million years, the lizards had already evolved a lot. Necromanis, a genus of French pangolin described by Henri Filhol in 1893, descended from Eomanis and already had anatomy, diet and behavior very similar to today’s pangolins. The fossils of which were found in the Quercy region.
New genetic studies indicate that the closest living relatives of pangolins are carnivores, with which they form the clade Ferae. A 2015 study confirmed a close relationship between pangolins and the extinct Creodonta group.
All eight living pangolin species divided pangolins into three genera in the 2000s: Manis, Phataginus and Smutsia, which include eight species + several fossils families. Pangolins (in Latin Pholidota) are part of the pangolin family (Manidae).
Appearance and features
These animals have a small, pointed head. The eyes and ears are small. The tail is wide and long, from 26 to 90 cm. The limbs are powerful, but short. The forelegs are longer and stronger than the hind legs. Each foot has five curved claws. Outwardly, the scaly body of the pangolin resembles a pine cone. Large, overlapping, lamellar scales cover almost the entire body. They are soft in newborn pangolins, but harden as they mature.
Only the muzzle, chin, throat, neck, some parts of the face, the inner sides of the limbs and the abdomen are not covered with scales. In some species, the outer surface of the forelimbs is also not covered. Parts of the body without scales are slightly covered with hair. Hair without scaly areas is whitish, ranging from pale brown to bright red-brown or blackish.
The skin is grayish with blue or pink in some places. Asian species have three or four hairs at the base of each scale. African species do not have such hairs. The size of the pangolin, including head + body, is between 30 and 90 cm. Females are usually smaller than males.
A curious fact! The scaly coating of the pangolin is made from keratin. It is the same material as human nails. In their composition and structure, they are very different from reptile scales.
These animals have no teeth. To capture food, lizards use a long and muscular tongue that can stretch for a long distance. In small species, the tongue is approximately 16 — 18 cm. Larger individuals have a 40 cm tongue. The tongue is very sticky and round or flat, depending on the species.
Where does the pangolin live?
Pangolins live in a variety of habitats, including forests, thick brush, sandy areas, and open grasslands. African varieties live in the south and in the center of the African continent: from Sudan and Senegal in the north to the Republic of South Africa in the south. The habitat of the lizard in Asia is located in the southwest of the continent. It extends from Pakistan in the west to Borneo in the east.
The range of individual species is distributed as follows:
- Indian lives in Pakistan, Bangladesh, most of India, some places in Sri -Lanka and China;
- Chinese — in Nepal, Bhutan, northern India, Burma, northern Indo-China, southern China and Taiwan;
- The Philippine pangolin is found only on the island of Palawan, in the Philippines;
- Malayan pangolin — Southeast Asia + Thailand + Indonesia + Philippines + Vietnam + Laos + Cambodia + Malaysia and Singapore;
- Pangolin temminckii lives in almost all countries of the southern half of Africa, from Sudan and Ethiopia in the north to Namibia and Mozambique in south;
- The giant lives in many countries in southern Africa. The largest number of individuals is concentrated in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya;
- Tree pangolin — central + western Africa, from the Congo in the east to Senegal in the west, including the basins of the Niger River, and the Congo River;
- The longtail lives in the forests of sub-Saharan Africa, along the Atlantic coast between Guinea and Angola, through the Central African Republic to Sudan and Uganda.
Specimens of long-tailed and Malaysian pangolins are often found in cultivated areas, indicating that pangolins are forced to approach humans. In some cases, they have been observed in areas degraded by human activities. Most lizards live on land, in burrows dug by themselves or other animals.
That’s curious! Long-tailed and forest (arboreal pangolin species) live in forests on trees and take refuge in hollows, rarely getting out onto the plains. The Indian pangolin can also climb trees, but it has its own burrow underground, so it is considered terrestrial.
Tree pangolins live in hollow trees, while terrestrial species dig tunnels underground to a depth 3.5 m.
What does a pangolin eat?
Pangolins are insectivorous animals. The lion’s share of the diet consists of all kinds of ants + termites, but can be supplemented by other insects, especially larvae. They are somewhat specific and have a predisposition to consume only one or two types of insects, even when many species are available to them. The lizard can consume from 145 to 200 g of insects per day. The pangolin is an important regulator of termite populations in their habitat.
Lizards have very poor eyesight, so they rely heavily on their sense of smell and hearing. Animals detect prey by scent and use their front paws to tear open nests. Pangolins’ lack of teeth has allowed for other physical characteristics that help them eat ants and termites.
That’s curious! The structure of their tongue and stomach is the key to the prey and digestion of insects. Sticky saliva causes ants and termites to stick to their long tongues. The absence of teeth does not allow pangolins to chew; however, when they get food, they swallow small stones (gastroliths). Accumulating in the stomachs, they help to grind prey.
Their skeletal structure is strong, and their strong front legs are useful for tearing up termite mounds. Pangolins use their powerful front claws to dig through trees, soil, and vegetation in search of prey. They also use outstretched tongues to explore insect tunnels and get prey. Arboreal pangolin species use their strong, prehensile tails to hang from tree branches and strip the bark from the trunk, revealing insect nests inside.
Character and Lifestyle Traits
Most pangolins are nocturnal animals that use a highly developed sense of smell to find insects. The long-tailed pangolin is also active during the day, while other species spend most of their daytime sleep curled up. They are considered reserved and secretive creatures.
Some lizards walk with their front claws bent under the pad of their feet, although they use the entire pad on their hind legs. In addition, some pangolins can sometimes stand on two legs and walk several steps bipedally. Pangolins are also good swimmers.
- The Indian pangolin lives in a wide variety of ecosystems, including jungles, forests, plains or mountain slopes. It lives in burrows, from 2 to 6 m deep, but is also able to climb trees;
- The Chinese pangolin lives in subtropical and deciduous forests. It has a small head with a pointed muzzle. With strong legs and claws, he digs holes two meters in less than 5 minutes;
- Philippine pangolin may have originally been a population of Malay pangolin that arrived from Borneo at the beginning of the Pleistocene through land bridges that formed during glaciation;
- The Malay pangolin lives in rainforests, savannahs, and densely vegetated areas. The skin of the legs is grainy and has a grayish or bluish tinge with small hairs;
- Pangolin temminckii is difficult to detect. It tends to hide in places with dense vegetation. Has a small head in relation to the body. The giant lizard lives in forests and savannahs where there is water. This is the largest species, reaching up to 140 cm in length in males and up to 120 cm in females;
- Tree pangolin sleeps on tree branches or among plants. As it rotates, it can lift the scales and make jerky movements with them, using muscles to move the scales back and forth. Emits aggressive sounds when threatened;
- The long-tailed pangolin has a tail of about 60 cm. It is the smallest species. Due to its size and prehensile tail, it leads an arboreal lifestyle. Lifespan in the wild is unknown, but in captivity it can live up to 20 years.
Social Structure and Reproduction
Pangolins are solitary animals. Males are larger than females and weigh 40% more. They reach sexual maturity at two years. African species usually have one offspring per pregnancy, Asian species may have one to three. The mating season is not clearly traced. Pangolins can breed at any time of the year, although November to March is their preferred period.
Interesting fact! Since pangolins are solitary animals, they must find each other by scent trails. The male, instead of looking for the female, marks his location with urine and feces, and the females look for them.
When competing for a female, contenders use the tail like a mace to compete for the opportunity to mate. The gestation period lasts from four to five months, with the exception of the Philippine lizards, in which the gestation of the fetus lasts only two months.
A baby pangolin is born with a length of approximately 15 cm and a weight of 80 to 450 g. At birth, its eyes are open, and the scaly covering of the body is soft. After a few days, they harden and darken, similar to adult lizards. Mothers protect their babies by wrapping them up with their coiled bodies and, like all mammals, feed them with milk that resides in a single pair of mammary glands.
Cubs depend on their mother until they are three or four months old . A month after birth, they leave the burrow for the first time and begin to feed on termites. During these exits, the children remain very close to the mother (in some cases, they cling to the tail, climbing higher along it). This helps the baby, in case of danger, quickly hide under the mother when she curls up and protect herself. At the age of two, children become sexually mature and are left by their mother.
Natural enemies of pangolins
When pangolins feel threatened, they may curl up into a ball to protect themselves. Sharp-edged scales act like armor during this time, protecting exposed skin and warding off predators. Once they have rolled up into a ball, they are very difficult to unfold.
Cooled into a ball, they can travel up slopes, traveling 30m in 10 seconds. Pangolins can also spray potential predators with a strong, foul-smelling liquid.
Interesting fact! Pangolins secrete a poisonous-smelling chemical from glands near the anus that strongly resembles skunk spray.
In addition to humans, the main predators of pangolins are:
The main threat to the pangolin is man. In Africa, pangolins are hunted for food. It is one of the most popular types of wild meat. Pangolins are also in demand in China because the meat is considered a delicacy, and the Chinese (like some Africans) believe that pangolin scales reduce inflammation, improve circulation, and help lactating women produce milk.
Pangolins have greatly reduced immunity due to a genetic dysfunction, making them extremely fragile. In captivity, they are susceptible to diseases such as pneumonia, ulcers, etc., which can lead to premature death.
Population and species status
All pangolin species are hunted for meat, skin, scales and other body parts that are prized for use in folk medicine. As a result, populations of all species have declined in recent years.
There are several threats to the pangolin:
- Fires that destroy their habitat;
- Pesticide abuse;
- Animal hunting.
The authorities seized trucks, crates and sacks of meat, scales and live animals. Animal dealers sell them to buyers who use the animals for food. Pangolin trafficking in China increases during the colder months due to the belief that pangolin blood helps maintain body heat and increases sexual activity. Although they are banned, there are Chinese restaurants that still serve pangolin meat at prices ranging from 50 to 60 euros per kg.
Pangolins are also believed to have magical powers. The scales collected in a ring serve as a talisman for rheumatism. Certain groups of people mix the scales with bark from trees, believing that this will protect against witchcraft and evil spirits. Sometimes the scales are burned to keep wild animals away. Some tribes believe that pangolin flesh acts as an aphrodisiac. And in some areas they are sacrificed in rain-calling ceremonies.
As a result of poaching , the population of all eight species has declined to a critical level and the animals were threatened with complete extinction at the beginning of the 21st century.
On a note! By 2014, the IUCN classified four species as vulnerable, two — Indian pangolin (M. crassicaudata) and Philippine pangolin (M. culionensis) — as endangered, and two species — M. javanica and Chinese pangolin — as endangered. All of them were listed in the Red Book.
These animals were subjected to terrible persecution, and the delegates of the 17th Conference on International Trade in Wildlife Species (CITES) in Johannesburg, South Africa, voted in favor of a ban for the international pangolin trade in 2016
Another approach to combating pangolin trafficking is to “track money” for the animals, in order to undermine the smugglers’ income by stopping the money flow. In 2018, a Chinese NGO started the — Pangolin live, calling for a joint effort to save a unique mammal. The TRAFFIC group has identified 159 smuggling routes and aims to stop them.