Featured Creature: Pangolin

Photo by David Brossard

What creature is one of Earth’s natural pest controllers, yet one of the most trafficked mammals in the entire world?

The Pangolin!

Photo by David Brossard

Let’s roll together!

Pangolins are a unique scaly-skinned mammal living in Africa and Asia. They have scales all over their body to protect themselves, no teeth but mobile long tongues to prey on insects, sharp claws to latch on trees or dig their burrows, and long tails to hang on trees (for some species) and to balance their bodies when they walk with their hind feet like a T-Rex!

There are a total of 8 species of pangolins. Their name “pangolin” comes from the Malay “pengguling” which means “something that rolls up.” It matches their behavior perfectly since pangolins roll over when threatened, showing only their scales to protect their soft belly. This passive self-defense mechanism is surprisingly useful in front of their predators, even lions have no clue how to “open” it:  Here!

Due to their ability to roll into a ball, many people mix them up with the armadillo, a mammal that lives in America which behaves similarly in front of their predators. However, they are not that difficult to distinguish if you look closely enough. Pangolins do not have two straight ears like armadillos. Also, only a few species of armadillos can curl their bodies into a ball, and this position does not cover their heads with their tails like pangolins do. Look at these photos for comparison:

(a) Photo by Louis Mornaud; (b) Photo fromsnl.no; (c) and (d) Photo from wikimedia

One of the best insect hunters you’ve ever seen

The existence of pangolins is crucial to keeping the soil healthy. They have big appetites for insects and are great at hunting them down. 

Pangolins have poor vision, but a strong sense of smell to find termite and ant nests. Their claws are perfectly designed to rip into the nests, and their long and saliva-covered tongue can stick to their prey and extract them easily. Each adult pangolin can consume about 70 million insects per year, covering an area as large as 31 football fields in their hunting!

Although ants and termites have important ecological roles in our ecosystems by recycling material and aiding fungal networks, an over-abundance of these insects can make them problematic to the environment and humans. Therefore, pangolins are the earth’s natural pest controller, limiting the ant and termite populations to keep soil healthy and nutrient-rich. Without these little mammals, insects might overrun Africa and Asia.

Besides the insect population control that keeps their ecosystems balanced, pangolins’ burrows also provide a shelter and thermal refuge for many animals, such as tortoises, rats, porcupines, and mongooses.

Pangolins scales protect them…but also endanger them

Pangolins’ scales are their best armor, protecting them for thousands of years…until humans found these creatures. Pangolins are one of the most trafficked animals in the entire world because their scales are prized in traditional medicine and their meat is considered a luxury dish in Asia. 

In reality, their scales are simply formed by keratin – the same material that is found in our fingernails, so they hardly have any medical value or benefit to people’s health. Sadly, their scales and self-defense mechanisms cannot protect them from the poacher.

Even though all eight species of pangolins are highly protected endangered species, about 2.7 million pangolins are still poached from the wild every year.

Photo from Wikimedia

Covid-19 may have originated from pangolins

Last but not least, while the world has been fighting against Covid-19, scientists put their nose to the grindstone to find the reservoirs of this zoonotic virus. Bats and pangolins happen to be the two major suspects. When studied, the coronavirus found in pangolins has proved to be a likely intermediate source of the virus’s genome, even if it may not be the direct ancestor of what we are grappling with among humans.

Many wild animals and even agricultural animals can spread bacterial, viral, or parasitic pathogens to humans that cause major public health problems. We cannot eradicate all such pathogens, but the good news is we can avoid spreading them by washing hands after being around animals and not eating animals from an unknown source.

In addition, stopping animal smuggling can greatly reduce human contact with wild animals and protect these creatures at the same time. To save pangolins (and ourselves), you can 1) spread the word to appreciate these endangered pangolins, 2) stick to certified products, and 3) report illegal activity if you see sales or consumption in restaurants or business establishments.

Photo from Wikimedia

Let’s protect pangolins together so these adorable baby pangolins can continue nudging their curled-up mothers!

By Catherine Hai