Pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, are solitary and primarily nocturnal mammals, uniquely covered with tough and sharp scales that look like pine cones, which they use to protect themselves from the predators. As and when under threat, a pangolin immediately rolls into a tight ball with its overlapping scales acting as armor, while it protects its face by tucking it under its tail. Like human fingernails, their scales are made of keratin and are structurally and compositionally very different from the scales of reptiles. In addition to the scales, as a defensive mechanism, they are also capable to release a stinky fluid from a gland at the base of their tails. Though the pangolins are basically nocturnal animals, the long tailed Pangolins remain active even during the day.
The eight species of pangolins are found on only two continents. The four Asian pangolins are distinguished from the African species by the presence of the bristles which emerge from between the scales. The four Asian pangolins include the Indian pangolin, the Chinese pangolin, the Palawan pangolin and the Sunda pangolin. The other four species that are found in the south of the Sahara Desert in Africa are known as the Ground pangolin, the Giant pangolin, the Black-bellied pangolin and the White-bellied pangolin. They are found in a variety of habitats including tropical and flooded forests, thick brush, savannah grassland and also in cleared and cultivated areas.
Pangolin species vary in size from about 1.6 kg to a maximum of about 33 kg. They also vary in colour, from light to yellowish brown, through olive to dark brown. Their heads are surprisingly small and conical. As they have poor vision, they locate termite and ant nests with their strong sense of smell. They lack teeth, but they have amazingly long and sticky tongues that are perfect for reaching and lapping up ants and termites in deep cavities. It may seem strange, but the large pangolins can extend their tongues as much as 16 inches. They have short and stout legs with curved and sharp claws, equipped with five toes, which they use for climbing and burrowing into ant or termite mounds and to dig nesting and sleeping burrows. They can run swiftly and often rise on their hind legs to sniff the air. Pangolins are also known as good swimmers.
Pangolins live mainly on a diet of ants and termites, along with various other small insects, earthworms, bee larvae, flies, worms and even crickets. Their insatiable appetite for insects gives them an important role in pest control.
After attaining sexual maturity at two years, they usually give birth to a single offspring, though the Asiatic species may give birth to more than one. At birth, the six inches long baby pangolins, weighing around 340 grams, have soft and pale scales, which begin to hard by the second day. The mother pangolins nurture their young in the nesting burrows and protectively roll around the baby when sleeping or if threatened. Infant pangolins ride on the base of the mother’s tail, as she forages for insects.
Unfortunately, the scales of pangolin are high in demand in Southern China and Vietnam, as the scales are believed to have medicinal properties. As its meat is also considered a delicacy, it has become the most trafficked animal in the world. Apart from that, rapid deforestation is also responsible for a large decrease in their numbers. In fact, poaching for illegal wildlife trade and habitat loss have made these incredible creatures one of the most threatened groups of mammals in the world.