Pangolins deserve attention when discussing wildlife. Despite not being as well known as other animals, they possess unique qualities and play essential roles in ecosystems.
The pangolin stands out from other mammals thanks to its tough, scale-like keratin armor and long, sticky tongues for catching prey, making them more like reptiles.
Pangolin species may look like armadillos but are not closely related. As we further explore the world of facts about pangolins, we'll discover how different they are from other mammals.
13 Fascinating Pangolin Facts
1. There are eight species of pangolin.
Pangolins are mammals from the family Manidae, consisting of eight pangolin species. Asian species are distinguishable from African species by bristles that emerge between their scales.
Four pangolin species live in Africa. The Black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla) and White-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) are in Central and West Africa. In contrast, the Giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) and Temminck's ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) inhabit various regions of sub-Saharan Africa.
The remaining species are Asian pangolins. The Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) lives in the Indian subcontinent, and the Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis) is native to the Philippines, particularly in Palawan and nearby islands. The Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) lives across Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla) lives primarily in China and neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. They vary in size, with the giant pangolin being the biggest among all eight species.
2. Pangolins are the only mammal with keratin armor.
Pangolins have a special feature that makes them unique among mammals: their keratin scales. These scales, numbering 2,000 on a single pangolin, are its natural armor, providing protection and giving them a distinct appearance4. Interestingly, keratin, the fibrous protein that makes up these scales, is the same material found in human hair and nails.
In addition, some pangolin species use their sharp scales to dig more efficiently, taking advantage of their streamlined body shapes.
3. They are masters of defense.
Pangolins have a unique defense mechanism: they curl into a tight ball when danger approaches. This posture keeps their vulnerable underbelly safe and protects their delicate body parts, including their heads. Through millions of years of evolution, their scales have become a hard, sharp-edged armor, creating an almost impenetrable shield6.
The scales' coloration and pattern allow them to blend seamlessly into their surroundings. The pangolin's strong muscles allow them to maintain this coiled position until the threat passes. Their overlapping scales form a robust barrier, making it difficult for predators to find a way to attack.
4. They have the nickname "Walking artichokes."
Pangolins earned the nickname "walking artichokes" because of their unique appearance, resembling an artichoke's leaves. This unique feature gives them a charming, plant-like look.
Scaly anteaters are another nickname born from their diet and scaled exterior. Like anteaters, pangolins eat insects, using their tongues to extract insects from nests and hidden spaces.
5. Pangolins are more active at night.
Pangolins are nocturnal animals that rely on their sense of smell to locate food and navigate their surroundings. With their keen sense of smell, these solitary creatures can find insects hidden in soil or tree bark1.
Their specialized hearing abilities also play a crucial role. They can detect the movements of ants and termites. Being nocturnal protects them from predators and daytime heat and reduces competition with other insect-eating animals. This nocturnal lifestyle ensures better access to food resources, enhancing their survival and success as a species.
Furthermore, pangolins' ability to navigate trees is awe-inspiring. Tree-dwelling species like the tree pangolin can climb trees to access insects and avoid dangers on the ground. Although disruptions to their nocturnal habits can occur due to factors like habitat changes, seasons, or food availability, these resilient creatures continually demonstrate their adaptability in the face of challenges.
Want to know another fascinating nocturnal mammal? Read our collection of brilliant bat facts.
6. Their primary diet consists of ants and termites.
Next on our pangolin facts list: The pangolin primarily eats ants and termites and has become an expert at locating these insects2. Moreover, pangolins use their long, sticky tongues to capture prey. These tongues can extend up to 40 centimeters and are coated with sticky saliva, allowing them to snatch insects from the tight crevices of the colonies.
Pangolins have evolved features to protect themselves from bites and stings. Their thick eyelids and nostril flaps close during meals, shielding them from bites and stings. They can consume an astonishing 200,000 ants and termites daily; an average pangolin can consume up to 70 million insects annually. They control insect populations and maintain ecosystem balance.
7. Pangolin mothers carry their young.
Pangolin mothers carry their young on their tails, keeping them close and safe from danger. Upon birth, pangolin babies have soft scales that harden quickly, providing some protection. The mother's role in ensuring their safety is crucial during this vulnerable stage.
The baby pangolin learns survival skills by observing the adult pangolin. It clings to her tail, imitating her actions to learn how to find food, especially ants and termites. This close bond also helps the young pangolin familiarize itself with its environment, find shelter, and avoid threats. The relationship between a pangolin mother and her baby is a heartwarming example of maternal care, lasting about two years.
8. Pangolins prefer to live alone.
Pangolins are solitary animals, avoiding contact with others as they search for food and explore their environment. This independent behavior helps reduce competition for resources and minimizes conflicts with fellow pangolins. Biologists and researchers find their solitary lifestyle intriguing, as these creatures rarely engage in social interactions unless necessary.
During the mating season, pangolins deviate from their usual solitary behavior. Males mark their territory and attract mates using scent glands, while females signal their readiness for mating through scent marking.
After courtship and mating, the male and female pangolins separate. The female takes on the task of raising the offspring alone.
9. Pangolins reproduce slowly.
Another interesting pangolin fact is that they have a slow reproductive rate. Unlike other mammals, female pangolins give birth to only one offspring per year. This limited reproductive rate is due to the extensive time and effort required to raise a pangopup. Young pangolins rely on their mothers for several months, consuming significant energy and resources.
The slow reproductive rate of pangolins is also influenced by their relatively long gestation period, ranging from 70 to 150 days, depending on the species. An Asian species, like the Chinese pangolin, follows a reproductive cycle of two years, resulting in even fewer births.
10. Pangolins roll into a ball when they sleep.
When it's time for a pangolin to rest or sleep, it curls into a tight ball, tucking its head under its tail for maximum protection. This posture keeps them safe from predators and helps maintain a stable body temperature since pangolins have low metabolic rates and are sensitive to temperature changes.
The pangolin's tail is critical in its unique resting position, exhibiting exceptional strength and flexibility.
11. They are the most trafficked mammals.
Despite being relatively unknown, pangolins are the most trafficked mammal worldwide. Between 2000 and 2013, over a million pangolins suffered trafficking. The main reason behind this illegal trade is the high demand for their scales and meat5.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the scales of Chinese pangolins are highly valuable because of their supposed healing properties. However, it's important to note that their scales comprise keratin, and no scientific evidence supports the medicinal claims associated with these scales.
Furthermore, the demand for their scales and meat has driven up prices in the black market, making pangolins a prime target for poachers and traffickers. This illegal activity has devastating consequences for pangolin populations; many animals die from stress, dehydration, and starvation during transport.
12. Pangolins are a declining species.
Pangolins are already a threatened species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) categorizes all eight pangolin species in Africa and Asia as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.
Widespread deforestation and urbanization of tropical forests have shrunk their natural habitats. As their environments disappear, pangolins struggle to find suitable places to nest, search for food, and reproduce. So, habitat loss dramatically affects their ability to maintain stable populations.
Despite international trade bans implemented by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), illegal trafficking of pangolins persists.
13. Global efforts have started to save pangolins.
Around the world, various organizations and governments have recognized the need to protect pangolins and have taken up the challenge of pangolin conservation. Their efforts primarily focus on preserving habitats.
Many countries have implemented national and international laws and legislation to safeguard pangolin habitats, while non-governmental organizations play a crucial role in restoring and maintaining these vital ecosystems. For instance, the Tikki Hywood Foundation in Zimbabwe works on ground pangolin conservation through habitat restoration, research, and education. Save Vietnam's Wildlife collaborates with local communities to combat habitat destruction.
In addition to habitat conservation, these organizations dedicate resources to combating poaching and trafficking, the leading causes of pangolin population decline.
Research and analysis of trafficking networks by organizations like TRAFFIC provide valuable insights that assist law enforcement and policy efforts in fighting the illegal wildlife trade3. Public awareness campaigns also educate the global community about pangolins, highlighting their unique characteristics, ecological importance, and the urgent threats they face.
World Pangolin Day, celebrated annually on the third Saturday of February, is an important global event that sparks discussions about pangolin conservation and encourages action to protect these species.
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