Pangolins: Pholidota

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PANGOLINS: Pholidota



Pangolins are unique looking animals covered with large, horny, overlapping scales. They were often referred to as scaly anteaters in the past. Typically, there are eighteen rows of scales. The scales are often described as looking similar to shingles on a roof. The weight of the scales and skin make up about 20 percent of the total body weight of most species. Scale color can be dark brown, dark olive-brown, pale olive, yellow-brown, or yellowish.

These animals have a small, pointed head that is smooth. Their eyes and ears are small. The tail is broad and long, ranging from 10 to 35 inches (26 to 88 centimeters). Limbs are short, small, and powerful. The front feet are longer and stronger than the hind feet. There are five curved claws on each foot.

Only the snout, chin, throat, neck, sides of the face, inner sides of the limbs, and the belly are not covered with scales. In some species the outer surface of the forelegs are also not covered. The parts of the body that are without scales are covered lightly with hair. The hairs of the scaleless areas are whitish, pale brown to reddish brown, or blackish. The skin is grayish with a blue or pink color in some areas. In the Asian species, there are both Asian and African species, there are three or four hairs at the base of each scale. The African species have no hair at the base of the scales.

In size, pangolins have a head and body length combined of 12 to 35 inches (30 to 90 centimeters). Females are generally smaller than males.

These animals have no teeth. To grab food they have a long and muscular tongue, able to extend a great distance. In the smaller species, the tongue measures about 6 to 7 inches (16 to 18 centimeters). In larger species the tongue stretches about 16 inches (40 centimeters). The tongue is sticky and either round or flat, depending on the species.


Pangolins are found in the tropical, hot and humid climate, and subtropical areas of Africa and Asia.


Pangolins live in a variety of habitats, including forests, thick bush, sandy areas, and open grasslands. Some species of pangolins are arboreal, live in trees, and shelter in tree hollows. Other species live on the land and stay in burrows, holes, dug either by other animals or themselves.


Pangolins eat almost exclusively on ants and termites. They snatch up individual insects, and also dig up entire ant hills and termite nests.


Pangolins move about slowly and deliberately. They often walk only on their hind legs. The smaller species are classified as arboreal and the larger ones as living on the land. Some species can live both on the ground and in trees. Most of these animals climb well and some also swim. These animals are solitary or sometimes found in pairs.


Trafficking, buying and selling illegally, appears to be one of the most harmful threats to the population of pangolins. Authorities have seized trucks, crates, and bags full of pangolin flesh, scales, and entire animals. Traffickers sell the animals and their parts to buyers who use the animals for food, and because these animals are believed to have healing properties to help various other ailments. For example, trafficking in pangolins in China increases during colder months, because of the belief that pangolin blood helps keep the body warm and enhances sexual performance.

When they feel threatened, pangolins can roll themselves into a ball to defend themselves. When they are in a rolled-up position, the sharp-edged scales act as armor, shielding any unprotected skin and warding away predators, animals that hunt them for food. Once they are rolled into a ball it is very difficult to unroll them. A pangolin has been observed curling itself into a ball and then rolling down a slope, traveling 98 feet (30 meters) in 10 seconds. Pangolins can also spray potential predators with a strong, foul smelling fluid that comes from the anal region.

Almost all pangolins are nocturnal, meaning they are active at night. Only one species is active during the day. The species that live on land use their powerful claws to make burrows and can make an 8-foot (2.4-meter) deep tunnel within three to five minutes. The arboreal pangolins use their long tails to balance and hang. Arboreal pangolins roll up in a ball in a tree hollow at night to sleep.

These animals have a well-developed sense of smell that they use to locate prey, animals hunted for food. In general, they have poor eyesight. As pangolins do not have teeth, they grab the prey with their long sticky tongue. They use their front claws to tear open anthills or termite mounds. The food enters their stomach whole, and is broken apart in the lower area of the stomach. All species drink water frequently, and lap it up by rapidly darting out their tongue.

Most pangolins are born between November and May, although findings have suggested that some pangolins can breed throughout the year. Gestation, length of pregnancy, is approximately 120 to 150 days. Generally, female pangolins have a single offspring. At the time of birth, scales are soft, flexible and do not overlap, but they harden after two days. Young pangolins can walk soon after birth. Offspring are carried on the mother's tail or back. A threatened mother will fold her tail and keep her baby under her body. Male pangolins may also share a burrow with females and the young, a characteristic not common among most mammals.

Babies are nursed for three to four months, and they begin to eat termites at about one month. Young pangolins first eat insects they find between the mother's scales. At about five months old offspring become independent.


Pangolins are picky eaters and they depend upon their well-developed sense of smell to locate their preferred foods. Each animal produces a specific smell. One report found that pangolins appear to eat only nineteen species of ants and termites. They especially favor formacid ants, a family of ants that includes fire ants and harvester ants.


People hunt and kill pangolins for several reasons. These animals are considered a delicacy and eaten as food in parts of Africa. They are also believed to hold magical powers. The scales are made into a ring as a charm against rheumatic fever, a disease that can damage the heart, and it used to treat other diseases. Certain groups of people mix the scales with bark from certain trees because it is believed to ward off witchcraft and evil spirits. Sometimes the scales are burned to keep wild animals away. Some tribes believe that pangolins flesh has aphrodisiac, enhancing sexual desire, values. And in certain areas, pangolins are sacrificed for rainmaking ceremonies.


Four species of pangolins are listed as Near Threatened, not currently threatened, but could become so, in the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List. Deforestation, the clearing of forests, has destroyed these animals natural habitat and caused a decrease in their population. In many areas, pangolins are legally protected animals. Aside from humans, leopards, lions, and tigers, are the main predatory threat of pangolins.


Physical characteristics: Ground pangolins, also called Cape pangolins, have a combined head and body length of 20 to 24 inches (50 to 60 centimeters), and a tail length that ranges from 14 to 20 inches (35 to 50 centimeters). They have no external ears. The body and tail of these animals are covered with scales that are a grayish brown to dark olive brown. The scales are sharp and moveable. Skin is whitish with fine, dark hairs. Specialized thick eyelids protect their small eyes.

These animals have hind feet with blunt claws that are padded, like those of an elephant. Their forefeet have large, digging claws. Males are generally larger than the females.

Geographic range: Ground pangolins are found in Africa, specifically from Chad and Sudan in central Africa, down through Kenya and Tanzania, to the northern parts of South Africa. The ground pangolin is the most common and most widely distributed pangolin in Kenya and Tanzania.

Habitat: Ground pangolins live in forests, thick brush, and grasslands. They live in areas with both high and low rainfall amounts.

Diet: Ground pangolins feed on certain species of termites and ants. They tear open termite mounds and anthills, both on the ground and in trees.

Behavior and reproduction: This nocturnal species lives on the land, yet occasionally climbs trees and bushes. Ground pangolins can move quickly, up to 160 feet (50 meters) per minute. They often do move slowly, walking on the hind legs. They keep their body horizontal to the ground when moving, using their tail for balance as it drags behind them. During the day these animals sleep in burrows that they dig.

Ground pangolins locate prey by smell and feed frequently—about ninety times every night. Pangolins are known to crack pieces of termite-infested wood across their chests to get to their prey. They also scratch in animal droppings for ants. When the baby is two to four weeks old the mother will carry it around on her back or tail. Offspring will feed by themselves at about three months old.

Ground pangolins and people: The pangolins are prized for the supposed medicinal properties of their various body parts.

Conservation status: The IUCN lists ground pangolins as Near Threatened. ∎



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