The word pangolin comes from penggulung, the Malay word for roller. If in danger, a pangolin will roll into a tight ball, hence the name. The main reason for the pangolin’s ability to roll itself into a ball is because it has a soft, slightly furry underside without scales. They can squirt an obnoxious smelling fluid from the base of their tails to send predators away.
The Cantonese name for the pangolin is chun shua cap, which means “scaly hill-borer.” Chinese folk law believes that pangolins travel all around the world below ground. The pangolin’s popularity is growing, but for the wrong reasons. Pangolins are poached more than any other mammal in the world.
It is estimated that around 10% of pangolins are killed in the illegal trade of wildlife. Their scales are used in traditional medicine and their meat is favoured by people in the Far East. Pangolin scales are just like human fingernails, both are made from keratin.
A pangolin baby is also fully covered in scales but for the first few days the scales are soft. No other mammal is wholly covered in scales. For the first three months, a pangolin baby uses its mother as a form of transport by riding on her back.
You can find pangolins living in a variety of places from rain forests to deserts. Pangolins like to live alone and are mainly nocturnal. Pangolins’ size ranges from the size of your pet tabby to over 30kg.
Ants are the pangolin’s favourite food. They use their long, sticky tongues (up to 70 cm) to catch them. Pangolins are indigenous to Asia and Africa. The Chinese, Sunda, Palawan, and Indian pangolins live in Asia. The white-bellied, giant, ground and black-bellied pangolins live in Africa.
Pangolins can be various shades of brown from light to dark. Most pangolins are ground dwellers, but the Black-bellied pangolin uses its sharp claws and its tail to climb trees. Pangolins are very good diggers, using their sharp claws to demolish the nests of termites and ants.
Many people think that pangolins are reptiles, but they are mammals. Pangolins need a strong sense of smell to find their main diet of termites as they have poor eyesight. Just as a bird’s gizzard is used to mash and grind its food, a pangolin has stones and spines made from keratin in its stomach. Some pangolins sleep in burrows they dig in the ground. Despite their covering of scales and short muscular legs, pangolins can run very fast, and they can swim.
It is estimated that a pangolin eats around 70 million insects in a year. Eating ants can be a tricky business – pangolins can seal their noses and ears to stop ants going in.
It has been known even for lions and hyenas to give up on trying to break through the pangolin’s hard scales. Pangolins sometime eat other foods such as flies, worms, and crickets. Unlike African pangolins, the Asian varieties have bristles between their scales. Muscles in the mouths of pangolins prevent ants and termites from escaping after being caught. Pangolins play an important role in pest control which benefits the ecosystem. At birth, pangolins are only about 15 cm long and weigh about 350 grams.
There is no data to show how long pangolins live in the wild, but they have been known to live up to 20 years in captivity.
Incredibly, pangolins are quite picky and prefer to consume only one or two species of insects. It is very difficult to breed pangolins in captivity. Poaching is causing pangolins to become an endangered species. It is forbidden to own a pangolin as a pet. Pangolins are also unique in another way, as they have more vertebrae than any other animal. The black-bellied pangolin has 75 vertebrae – the most of any animal.
There are 46-47 vertebrae in the tail of a pangolin. Pangolins have long, sticky tongues – some pangolin tongues are over 40 cm long. Pangolins don’t smell great. Special glands near the pangolin’s anus secrete a pungent fluid that is used for both marking territory and defence, like a skunk. Pangolins have 5 toes on each paw and 3 claws on each front paw.
The gestation period differs based on species, but typically ranges between 70 to 140 days. African pangolin females give birth to a single offspring. Asiatic species give birth from one to three.
At two years of age when the offspring are sexually mature, they will be abandoned by the mother. They have no natural predators except humans. The illegal wildlife trade is still a threat to pangolins. You can help protect them by reporting wildlife crime.
Taiwan is one of the few conservation grounds for pangolins in the world after the country enacted the 1989 Wildlife Conservation Act.
World Pangolin Day is on the third Saturday of February every year. What is a group of pangolins called? There is no official collective noun for pangolins because they are solitary species. Pangolins are also not very well known. Think of a suitable collective noun and send your idea to us.