Pangolins, also called scaly anteaters, are sub-Saharan African and Asian mammals that have horny scales covering the upper parts of their bodies. All seven species belong to one genus, Manis, making up the order Pholidota. The overlapping brown, gold, olive, or purplish scales serve to protect the animal from predators. Pangolins feed on ants, termites, and other insects; they use their long, narrow tongues to probe insect nests and extract their prey. The name pangolin comes from a Malay word that means “rolling over.” The family name, Manidae, means “scaled animals.” The pangolin’s scales grow out of the animal’s skin. They are regularly shed and replaced both as the animal grows and throughout its life, which may be 10 or more years. The back edges of the scales are sharp. If frightened, a pangolin can curl up in a very tight ball, with only the sharp edges of its scales exposed. In this condition it is safe from all predators except the larger cats and hyenas. The Asian species have several hairs growing from the base of each scale; the African species have hair only on their exposed surfaces.
The largest pangolin is the giant pangolin (M. gigantea ) of Africa. It may reach a total length of more than 5 ft (1.5 m), of which about half is scale-covered tail. Its amazing tongue is almost as long as its
body. This tongue can be 27 in (69 cm) long, though probably only half that length is extended beyond its sheath and into ant nests. The tongue is anchored to an attachment point on the animal’s pelvis and is kept sticky by a huge salivary gland located in the chest. The thousands of ants the animal traps on its tongue are not chewed but deposited directly into a muscular, thick-walled stomach that grinds them up; the pangolin has no teeth or chewing muscles. Like the South American anteaters, the pangolin has powerful front limbs with massive claws that can tear apart termite nests. The Cape pangolin (M. temminckii ) burrows underground during the day and hunts for termites at night.
The giant pangolin and the other ground-dwelling species have difficulty walking on the ground because of the massive claws on their forefeet. They can tuck the claws up and walk slowly on the side of the forefeet, but if they are in a hurry, pangolins generally rise up on their hind feet and run two-legged, using the tail for balance.
The smallest pangolin is the long-tailed pangolin (M. tetradactyla ), also of Africa. It is about 30 in (76 cm) from head to tail. Unlike the giant pangolin, which is a ground-dwelling animal, the long-tailed pangolin lives high in the canopy of trees. These animals also eat termites and ants, but they target the species that build hanging nests. The long-tailed pangolin’s tail contains more vertebrae, or spinal bones, than any other mammal. The 46 or 47 bones make the tail flexible enough to wrap around tree branches and let the animal hang upside down or curl up tightly in a little ball while it sleeps. The very tip of the tail is bare, making it more sensitive.
The three Asian species are the Chinese pangolin (M. pentadactyla ), the Indian pangolin (M. crasicau-data ), and the Malayan pangolin (M. javanica ). The Chinese pangolin is classified as arboreal, although it feeds primarily on the ground. The Indian and the Malayan pangolins are equally comfortable on the ground and in trees.
Pangolins generally lead solitary lives except when mating. After a gestation period of about 18 weeks, the female gives birth to usually a single offspring. It is born with soft scales that quickly harden. The infant clings to its mother’s back or tail as she moves about feeding. If threatened by harm, the mother can safely curl up around her infant until the danger passes.
Although no pangolin is currently known to be seriously endangered, all of them are suffering from habitat reduction. In Africa, pangolins are hunted for their meat and scales. In some Asian countries, pangolin scales are believed to have medicinal value, leading to indiscriminate killing of these animals.
Kerrod, Robin. Mammals: Primates, Insect-Eaters and Baleen Whales. New York: Facts on File, 1988.
Wilson, D.E., and D. Reeder. Mammal Species of the World. 3rd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Jean Blashfield Black