Pangolins are elusive, and some might even say mythical, creatures.
So much so that many people don’t even know what pangolins are, and those fortunate enough to see one in the wild deem themselves very lucky indeed! Despite their bizarre appearance and being covered in scales, pangolins are indeed mammals. Furthermore, it might come as a surprise that their closest living relatives are the carnivores and not armadillos, as many people assume. Some other interesting facts about pangolins are:
1. Pangolins are the only group of mammals that are covered in scales rather than hair. These scales consist of keratin overlying a hard calcium plate, and are hard enough to afford pangolins protection against predators such as lions and leopards. They are also incredibly sharp, and frequently cut careless predators (and researchers).
2. There are eight species of pangolins worldwide. Four of these species occur in Africa, while the remaining four are restricted to India and Asia.
3. Two of the African pangolin species (White-bellied Tree Pangolin and Long-tailed Tree Pangolin) are arboreal and have well-developed claws on their front- and hind feet as well as a long, prehensile tail to assist them with moving through trees. The remaining two species (Ground Pangolin and Giant Pangolin) are terrestrial and only have well-developed claws on their front feet, which are used for digging into ant nests and termite mounds. The hind feet consist of a soft pad with five reduced claws, reminiscent of an elephant’s foot. These latter two species are bipedal – they only walk on their hind feet with the front feet and tail held off the ground and acting as counterbalances.
4. Pangolins are entirely myrmecophagous. This means that they exclusively eat ants and termites, of which ants constitute 90 % of a Ground Pangolin’s diet. They are also toothless and rely on the muscular stomach and grit that is inadvertently ingested while feeding to grind up their prey.
5. A pangolin’s tongue is nearly as long as the body itself. The tongue is retracted along a special cartilaginous structure that extends just below the backbone from the mouth to the pelvic region, curves around and continues along the abdominal wall to near the diaphragm. This structure enables virtually the entire tongue to be extended and inserted into an ant or termite nest. The sticky saliva on the tongue ensures that prey sticks to it, and when the tongue is retracted the prey is scratched off the tongue and diverted down the oesophagus by a special bony projection present at the back of the mouth.
6. Recent research suggests that ground pangolins and giant pangolins may live in excess of 20 years – this is nearly double what was previously assumed.
7. Pangolins only have a single pup (baby) a year. The pup is born in a burrow, but after a month will accompany the mother during her feeding sessions by catching a ride on the mother’s back. The pup becomes completely independent after three months, but will remain in its mother’s home range until nearly a year old.
8. Current evidence suggests that ground pangolins only become sexually mature after 5 – 7 years. This, combined with the slow reproductive rate, means that recruitment (the number of new individuals entering the population each year) is low. It also means that every individual that is killed (through accidental electrocution on electrified fences or poaching) is a big loss to the population.
9. Although pangolins are fairly widespread in Africa, only a handful of studies have ever focussed on them. Thus we are still largely lacking even basic knowledge such as longevity, reproductive strategies and the like. The two tree pangolin species and the giant pangolin have received virtually no research attention until now.
10. Pangolins across the world are being poached for the traditional medicine, bushmeat and ornamental trade. There is increasing pressure on our indigenous pangolins from the oriental region, largely because the Asian pangolin populations have dramatically declined as a result of continued unsustainable utilisation. Unless something is done soon, our African species may suffer a similar fate.
16 February is World Pangolin Day and is intended to raise awareness about these amazing creatures, the threats they face and the steps being taken to protect them. The African Pangolin Working Group is the African constituent of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Pangolin Specialist Group. This group, together with its affiliated organisations, plans, co-ordinates and implements research on pangolins in Africa in an effort to better understand, and ultimately protect, these unique mammals.
Some of our current projects include finding methods to reduce electrocutions on game fences, monitoring the local and international trade in pangolins, determining current distributions of the four African species, assessing the genetic diversity within and between species and assisting local and national governments in determining the best ways to conserve these species.