Pangolins are the only mammal in the world to be covered from head to toe in scales. They eat an enormous 70 million insects every year!
Amazing Facts About the Pangolin
Pangolins are the only mammal in the world with scales. Despite having been around for almost 80 million years, they are now endangered, largely due to their dubious honour of being the most trafficked mammal in the world. An estimated 195,000 Pangolins were taken from the wild in 2019 alone.
Where does the word Pangolin come from?
The name ‘Pangolin’ comes from the Malay word ‘penggulung’ or ‘roller’ as Pangolins curl into a defensive ball to protect themselves from predators.
What do Pangolins look like?
Pangolins have long, smooth heads, strong limbs, curved claws and long tails. They typically creep along on two or four limbs but can run surprisingly fast when necessary and often raise themselves up onto their hind limbs to scent the air.
Their most distinctive feature, however, is the sheet of overlapping scales covering their backs. Made from keratin (just like our hair and nails) and compacted together, these scales provide vital protection against predators. They range in colour from yellowish-brown to dark brown, depending on the species, and they never stop growing!
How many species of Pangolin are there?
There are eight different Pangolin species, and they are Vulnerable to Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List for Endangered Species. Four species live in Africa (the White-bellied Pangolin, the Giant Ground Pangolin, the Black-Bellied Pangolin and the Temminck’s Pangolin) and four in Asia (the Sunda Pangolin, the Chinese Pangolin, the Philippine Pangolin and the Indian Pangolin).
Asian Pangolins differ from their African cousins by the bristles that emerge from between their scales. Some Pangolin species, such as the Ground Pangolin, live mainly on the ground, while others, like the Black-Bellied Pangolin, are arboreal (live mainly in the trees) and have a prehensile tail that they use as a fifth limb while climbing.
Where do Pangolins live?
Pangolins live in a range of habitats, including tropical forests and savannah grasslands – wherever there are large numbers of ants and termites! They make their homes in hollow trees, in the abandoned burrows of other animals, or in burrows they dig themselves that may be up to 40m long. Ground Pangolin burrows have been discovered that would be large enough for an adult human to crawl into and stand up!
What do Pangolins eat?
All species of Pangolins feed on insects, mostly ants and termites, but occasionally also larvae, worms and crickets. An adult Pangolin can eat 70 million insects every year, making them one of nature’s best pest controllers!
Pangolins have poor eyesight and hearing, so they most likely use their sense of smell to find insects before digging them out using their powerful claws and collecting them using their long, sticky tongues. They are able to close their ears and nostrils using special muscles to prevent insects from crawling inside when they are feeding.
What is known about the breeding life of Pangolins?
Scientists and conservationists know very little about the reproductive life of Pangolins. With their strong sense of smell, they are most likely to mark their territories and locate a potential mate by spraying urine, faeces or even secretions from glands on markers within their territories.
Male Pangolins are larger than females and may stay with the mother until their baby is independent. Most female pangolins give birth to a single baby (though some Asian species have been spotted with two or three young at once), which is born with soft, pale scales that harden after only a couple of days. Young pangolins are capable of eating ants and termites at a month old but will continue to drink from their mother until about four months old. A mother pangolin will curl protectively around her baby if threatened, and perhaps most adorably of all, a baby pangolin will ride around on its mother’s tail as she forages for insects.
What are the threats to the Pangolin?
Pangolins have several defences against natural predators, including scaly armour, the ability to curl into a tight ball (which allows them to roll quickly away from danger), sharp scales on their tails and a foul-smelling liquid that they spray from their anal glands. Unfortunately, these defences are relatively useless against their main predator: humans. Tragically, rolling into a ball only makes it easier for poachers to pick up and take away, and they are in high demand for their meat which is a delicacy in Asian countries. Their scales are used in traditional medicine.
It is almost impossible to keep pangolins in captivity, even for conservation purposes, as they are incredibly sensitive and will refuse to eat or drink when under stress. This means that every single pangolin on the black market has come from the wild – over a million since 2000. In 2016, Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species introduced a complete ban on the commercial trade of pangolins, but the illegal market is still flourishing.
Other threats to pangolins include hunting and habitat destruction. According to the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, all eight pangolin species are in decline, and it predicts a 50% decline for the Indian Pangolin between 2019 and 2043. Other species are suffering similar fates, though their secretive nature makes it difficult for conservationists to accurately calculate population size.
How can you help the Pangolin?
In 2017, WWF, TRAFFIC and IFAW joined together with companies across the world in the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online.
The Internet is a valuable resource for those trading in illegal animal parts, but it is difficult to monitor. The Coalition allows companies such as Google, Facebook and eBay to work with wildlife experts in developing an action plan for the fight against animal trafficking, including citizen monitoring programs, awareness campaigns and removing adverts associated with trafficking from the Internet. Their website also has details of how to help as an individual, including what to look out for (items such as elephant ivory products, tiger products, pangolin leather and live animals such as primates and big cats can be reported to the Coalition online) and how to apply to become a Cyber Spotter (individuals who undergo training on how to identify species and derived products for sale online).
In an exciting development in the fight against wildlife trafficking, the Chinese government announced in June 2020 that they are upgrading the protective status of Pangolins from second to first class, giving them the same level of protection as Giant Pandas. This should lead to stricter enforcement of wildlife laws and harsher penalties for those involved in the illegal trade of wildlife. Conservation charities and organisations such as WWF and TRAFFIC are lobbying for stronger defences against poaching and even stronger national laws to protect endangered species like the Pangolin.
Page updated: 08/03/2023 by volunteer writer, Ami Patrick.
- Type: Mammal
- Diet: Insectivore
- Life span: Unknown (wild) 20 (captivity)
- Weight: 1.6 kg – 33 kg
- Size: Length 115 cm – 1.4 m
- Habitat: Savannah, tropical forests, wetlands and occasionally urban areas
- Range: Asia and Africa
- Scientific name: Manidae