Pangolins, sometimes known as scaly anteaters, are mammals of the order Pholidota (/fɒlɪˈdoʊtə/, from Ancient Greek ϕολιδωτός – “clad in scales”). The one extant family, the Manidae, has three genera: Manis, Phataginus, and Smutsia. Manis comprises the four species found in Asia, while Phataginus and Smutsia include two species each, all found in sub-Saharan Africa. These species range in size from 30 to 100 cm (12 to 39 in). A number of extinct pangolin species are also known.
Pangolins have large, protective keratin scales, similar in material to fingernails and toenails, covering their skin; they are the only known mammals with this feature. They live in hollow trees or burrows, depending on the species. Pangolins are nocturnal, and their diet consists of mainly ants and termites, which they capture using their long tongues. They tend to be solitary animals, meeting only to mate and produce a litter of one to three offspring, which they raise for about two years.
Pangolins are threatened by poaching (for their meat and scales, which are used in traditional medicine) and heavy deforestation of their natural habitats, and they are the most trafficked mammals in the world. As of January 2020, there are eight species of pangolin whose conservation status is listed in the threatened tier. Three (Manis culionensis, M. pentadactyla and M. javanica) are critically endangered, three (Phataginus tricuspis, Manis crassicaudata and Smutsia gigantea) are endangered and two (Phataginus tetradactyla and Smutsia temminckii) are vulnerable on the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Characteristics and behavior
Pangolins are solitary and active mostly at night. Most live on the ground, but some, like the black-bellied pangolin, also climb trees.
They range in size from a large housecat to more than four feet long. They are largely covered in scales made of keratin—the same material as human fingernails—which gives them the nickname “scaly anteater.” When threatened, they roll into ball, like an armadillo, and they can release a stinky fluid from a gland at the base of their tails as a defense mechanism.
Like anteaters, pangolins have long snouts and even longer tongues, which they use to lap up ants and termites they excavate from mounds with their powerful front claws. They’re able to close their noses and ears to keep ants out when they’re eating.
Though they look and act a lot like anteaters and armadillos, pangolins are more closely related to bears, cats, and dogs.
1. They wear heavy armor
The pangolin’s scales make up 20 percent of its total body weight.
2. They are toothless
Pangolins have no teeth; instead they rely on a gizzard-like stomach that is adapted for grinding food.
3. Their scales are dangerous weapons
Pangolins use their scales as tools for self-defense. If threatened, the pangolin will perform a cutting motion with its scales if anything is inserted between them—that’s a nasty shock for a strange paw or snout!
4. Their tongues may be longer than their bodies
A pangolin’s tongue can be up to 16 inches in length. They use these extraordinarily long tongues to reach insects burrowed underground.
5. They are threatened with extinction
Less than one year ago, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognized the threat to Africa’s pangolins by scaling their status up to ‘Vulnerable’ due to the effects of illicit hunting and poaching.