Creature Feature: Pangolins

The pangolin is an incredibly fascinating animal that you might not have ever heard of. Classified in the order Pholidota and most closely related to the Carnivora, these mammals are found in Asia and Africa, although they are extremely threatened across their range. Pangolins hold a depressing world record: they account for 20% of sales in the black market animal trade, with nearly 100,000 pangolins sold each year1. The extreme exploitation of these rare creatures has landed all eight species of pangolin on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, ranging in status from vulnerable to critically endangered. So why are they so sought after?

Scaly Anteater actually walks on its hind feet.  It uses its front feet for balance.
Ground pangolin at Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. [Source]
A pangolin’s natural defense mechanism is to curl into a ball, similar to an armadillo. The name “pangolin” comes from the Malay word pengguling, which translates to “rolling up”. This behavior can be quite effective at protecting them against predators, since their keratin scales—the same material that your fingernails are made of—act as a defensive, chainmail-like armor. Even large cats, the pangolin’s primary non-human predator, cannot penetrate this sturdy network of scales.

Pangolin_defending_itself_from_lions_(Gir_Forest,_Gujarat,_India)
An Asian pangolin, balled up to defend itself. [Source]
However, in this balled up state, pangolins are easy to scoop up by hunters. Ironically, the scales that should protect them from predation are greatly coveted for use in Chinese medicine as they are thought to relieve paralysis and tremors, as well as induce lactation1. These beliefs about their medicinal qualities make pangolins extremely vulnerable to human poaching and accounts for their rapidly decreasing population size.

Pangolin_scale_burn_in_Cameroon._Credit-_Kenneth_Cameron_-_USFWS_(2)_(32575640450).jpg
Pangolin scales, for use in traditional medicine. [Source]
What else is so interesting about this intriguing mammal? A pangolin’s tongue can be longer than its body! Pangolins are unable to chew and do not have teeth, so they use their long tongues to ingest small insects and swallow them whole1. Once swallowed, pangolins use stones and spikes in their stomach to grind up the insects. This is similar to how an anteater—both animals are myrmecophagous—ingests and processes tough insect exoskeletons.

Pangolins also bear a striking resemblance to skunks. While visibly quite different, pangolins smell as pungent as skunks do. Pangolins cannot spray noxious gases, but can release them slowly from glands near their anus.

Despite their physical similarities to armadillos, similar foraging habits to anteaters, and similar olfactory system to skunks, pangolins are actually more closely related to bears, hyenas, and wolves! This is a beautiful example of convergent evolution, whereby distantly-related species evolve analogous traits, due to similar environmental factors and evolutionary mechanisms.

EB1911_Pangolin
An artist’s depiction of a pangolin foraging for insects. [Source]
Pangolins are captivating creatures, and not much is known about their natural history and behavior in the wild. The Pangolin Consortium was launched in 2014 and combines the knowledge and resources of six zoos and Pangolin Conservation. Their goal is to conduct extensive research on pangolin behavior and devise the best strategies to protect these highly-trafficked animals. The Pangolin Consortium has now discovered how to care for rescued pangolins in captivity, a feat once considered impossible3.  Though pangolins are in danger of a speedy extinction, knowledge about these animals and their plight is reaching more audiences, so it is up to us to spread the word about these special creatures!

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A rescued pangolin. Thanks to the work of the Pangolin Consortium, select zoos now have the resources to care for this little guy. [Source]

[By: Allison Lau]


Sources:

1Kelly, G. (2016, March 15). Pangolins: 13 facts about the world’s most hunted animal. Retrieved December 03, 2017, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/03/15/pangolins-13-facts-about-the-worlds-most-hunted-animal/

2(n.d.). Retrieved December 03, 2017, from http://www.iucnredlist.org/search

3U.S. zoos learn how to keep captive pangolins alive, helping wild ones. (2018, January 05). Retrieved January 07, 2018, from https://news.mongabay.com/2018/01/u-s-zoos-learn-how-to-keep-captive-pangolins-alive-helping-wild-ones/

Featured image [Source].

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