Sep 26

Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters due to their armoured appearance, are secretive, elusive creatures, found in tropical and subtropical forests, dry woodlands and open savanna regions of Africa and Asia. Despite their slightly reptilian features, pangolins are, in fact, mammals, and although they are quite similar to anteaters and armadillos in many ways, these scaly critters come from a distinct taxonomic order.

Ground pangolin image

Ground pangolin

There are eight different species of pangolin, four of which are found in Africa, and four in Asia. Something all pangolin species have in common is a characteristic covering of hard, protective scales, which are comprised of keratin, the same substance found in our own hair and nails and in rhino horn.

Did you know?

Asian pangolin species are different from their African counterparts in that they have hair between their scales.

Sunda pangolin image

Sunda pangolin

Pangolins are predominantly nocturnal, and rely on their keen sense of smell to locate ant nests and termite mounds at night. Their strong claws are used to dig into the nests or even rotting logs, and their flexible tails come in handy for support and balance while the insect prey is captured using a long and extremely sticky tongue.

Did you know?

It has been estimated that an adult pangolin can consume more than 70 million insects each year. These mammals play an important ecological role in regulating social insect populations.

Black-bellied pangolin image

Black-bellied pangolin

While many pangolin species tunnel underground to nest and shelter in burrows, some pangolin species, such as the black-bellied or long tailed pangolin, are arboreal, and have certain adaptations to enable them to live in the trees. Tree-dwelling pangolin species have extremely long, prehensile tails, which are used when climbing and for hanging from branches.

Did you know?

Arboreal pangolin species have special tail pads which they use for climbing, and have hair on the lower parts of their forelimbs rather than scales.

Three-cusped pangolin image

Three-cusped pangolin

If threatened, pangolins attempt to deter attackers by hissing and puffing, and can protect themselves from predators by rolling up into a tight ball, with the tough scales forming an almost impregnable layer.

Did you know?

Pangolins protect themselves from insect attacks by sealing their nostrils and ears shut using specially adapted muscles.

Chinese pangolin image

Chinese pangolin

Sadly, two of the eight pangolin species are classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with a further four being classified as Near Threatened. Pangolins are protected by both national and international legislation throughout their range, yet habitat loss and poaching are still major threats, particularly to the Asian species.

Did you know?

One of the major threats to Asian pangolins is illicit hunting for black market international trade, and there are fears that African pangolins could also be at risk. Pangolin meat is sold as food, while the scales are used in traditional medicine.

Thick-tailed pangolin image

Thick-tailed pangolin

It’s not all doom and gloom for pangolins, though, because several conservation and research projects are currently being conducted by the newly formed Pangolin Specialist Group, part of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission (SSC). These projects aim to find out more about pangolin ecology and biology, learn more about captive husbandry, rescue and rehabilitation, and understand the illicit trade in pangolin products. With this new information, it is hoped that effective conservation measures can be put into place to help save these intriguing mammals.

For more information on pangolins and their conservation, don’t forget to check out the Pangolin Specialist Group’s new website.

Learn more about pangolin species on ARKive.

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

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