A World Famous Naturalist Calls Them 'Endearing', and More Facts About the Endangered Pangolin

A World Famous Naturalist Calls Them 'Endearing', and More Facts About the Endangered Pangolin

Pangolins are elusive, which may not always put them on your radar. These nocturnal animals are quite unique, though. They’re mammals covered in scales. Despite their often smaller size, they don’t generally have to worry about predators. They can live in trees or burrows, forests or grasslands, or in thick brush or cleared landscapes. A well-known conservationist even finds them quite lovable. Unfortunately, they’re also the most trafficked mammal in the world, due to demand for their meat and scales. This has put all pangolin species at risk. There is work being done to save them, though. Learn more about these special animals and why they need to be protected.

There Are Eight Different Species

There are eight different species of pangolin, ranging in size from one to three feet long without their tails, and from 10 pounds to around 60. Their tails, meanwhile, can measure between one and two-and-a-half feet long, with their tongues reaching nearly a foot, too.

Four species live in Asia: the Chinese, Sunda, Philippine, and Indian pangolins, while they have four African cousins: the white-bellied, black-bellied, giant, and ground pangolins. Unfortunately, they're all at risk. The International Union for Conservation of Nature currently lists the Sunda, Chinese, and Philippine species as critically endangered, while the white-bellied, giant, and Indian species are endangered. Ground and black-bellied pangolins are also considered vulnerable.

They’re a Friend to the Forest

The threats to their survival could come with big impacts to forests. With their exceptionally long, sticky tongues, pangolins eat ants, but also termites, which helps ensure forest ecosystems are balanced. In fact, they can eat around 10% of their body weight in termites in one meal. This means just one pangolin can protect up to 41 wooded areas from termite destruction.

They Have Their Own Armor

The scales that cover a pangolin’s body provide them robust protection against predators. When threatened, they’ll curl up into a ball, with their heads tucked away so that only their scales are accessible. Their tails are also scaled and can be used as a self-defense weapon. For the most part, predators can’t penetrate these scales, though occasionally big cats or hyenas are up to the task. Their name also stems from a Malay word meaning rolling up, so they live up to that!

They Have Advanced Instincts

When pangolins use their tails for self-defense, researchers say they show advanced instincts. This is because if they are able to inflict damage and the predator ends up between their body and tail, the pangolin has been observed using a sawing motion to make matters worse for the assailant. This is a reflection of a “fairly high mentality”.

Their Tails Are Record-Breaking, And Their Chromosomes Nearly Are, As Well

Being a scaly mammal sets them apart enough, but their bodies are out of the ordinary in other ways, too. The black-bellied pangolin has 46 to 47 vertebrae in its tail, the highest among mammals. Additionally, female white-bellied pangolins have 114 chromosomes, the second most among any mammals, except for the Bolivian bamboo rat, which has 118. Interestingly, the males only have 113.

This shows they're kind of doing their own thing. UCLA research fellow Jen Tinsman, co-author of the study that made the chromosome discovery, said, “There’s nothing else like them on the planet; they’re in their own order, their own family.”

Pangolin walks across tree branch PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK

They’re Into Breaking and Entering

Pangolins are generally solitary, nocturnal, and elusive, often sleeping in burrows or trees during the day. There is a bit of an exception, though: Some are ready to crash your home. It’s not unheard of for Indian pangolins to use their claws to dig through concrete and drop by people’s houses.

Their Closest Relatives May Be Surprising

With their bodies and diets, you’d think their relatives would be animals like anteaters and armadillos. However, they’re more closely related to the order Carnivora, which includes cats and bears. They’re also closely related to rhinoceroses.

They’re ‘Endearing’

Famed naturalist David Attenborough, known for his documentaries and passion for wildlife, is quite fond of pangolins. Not only did he once choose them as one of the 10 animals he’d save from extinction, he also called them “endearing.”

They’re Good Hitchhikers

Baby pangolins – also known as pangopups – are hard not to consider endearing. When they’re young, they get around by hitching a ride on their mother's back as she goes about her foraging.

These Protectors of the Forest Face Many Threats

These endearing and quiet breakers and enterers are under threat, though. Habitat loss is among their issues, but the biggest one is the high demand for their scales and meat. This has made them the most trafficked mammal in the world. Their scales are used in traditional medicine and their meat is considered a delicacy, which leads scores to end up in the illegal wildlife trade or to be poached. More than a million are thought to have been poached in the past 10 years. Their defensive move of rolling up makes it easy for humans to take them, too.

Their elusive nature also makes them difficult to study, and it can be hard to keep them alive in captivity due to their unique diets and tendency to become stressed.

With your contributions, we’ve been working to help trafficked pangolins. If you’d like to keep giving this threatened species a chance to thrive, click below!

Michelle Milliken

Michelle has a journalism degree and has spent more than seven years working in broadcast news. She's also been known to write some silly stuff for humor websites. When she's not writing, she's probably getting lost in nature, with a fully-stocked backpack, of course.

Back to blog