Pangolin Facts

Scientific Name: Order Pholidota

Pangolin hunting for ants
Pangolin hunting for ants.

2630ben / Getty Images

The pangolin is an unusual-looking mammal that is covered with scales instead of fur. The scales are made of keratin, the same protein found in hair and fingernails. Threatened pangolins roll into a ball and are so protected by the scales that most large predators can't bite into them. The name pangolin comes from the Malay word "pengguling," which means "one who rolls up."

Fast Facts: Pangolin

  • Scientific Name: Order Pholidota
  • Common Names: Pangolin, scaly anteater
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 45 inches to 4.5 feet
  • Weight: 4 to 72 pounds
  • Lifespan: Unknown (20 years in captivity)
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Habitat: Asia and sub-Saharan Africa
  • Population: Unknown
  • Conservation Status: Endangered

Species

Pangolins are mammals in the order Pholidota. There are several extinct species and only one extant family, Manidae. Four species in the genus Manis live in Asia. Two species in the genus Phataginus live in Africa. Two species in the genus Smutsia live in Africa.

Pangolin in the hands of a poacher, rolled into its defensive position.
Pangolin in the hands of a poacher, rolled into its defensive position. Fabian von Poser, Getty Images

Description

The pangolin is sometimes called the scaly anteater. Pangolins share a similar body shape, long snout, and long tongue with the giant anteaters, but they are actually more closely related to dogs, cats, and bears. Pangolins range in size from the size of a house cat to over four feet long. Mature males can be 40% larger than females. Average pangolin size ranges from 45 inches to 4.5 feet, with a weight between 4 and 72 pounds.

Habitat and Distribution

The Chinese, Sunda, Indian, and Philippine pangolins live in Asia, although no wild pangolin has been seen in China in several years. The ground, giant, black-bellied, and white-bellied pangolin live in Africa.

Distribution of pangolin species.
Distribution of pangolin species. Craig Pemberton, Creative Commons License

Diet and Behavior

While pangolins aren't closely related to anteaters, they do eat ants and termites. These nocturnal insectivores consume 4.9 to 7.1 ounces of insects each day. Pangolins lack teeth, so they swallow small stones to help digest prey. While they hunt using their sense of smell, pangolins seal their nose and ears and close their eyes when feeding. They use strong claws to dig into the ground and vegetation to access prey, which they retrieve using long tongues coated with sticky saliva.

Reproduction and Offspring

Except for mating, pangolins are solitary creatures. Males mark territory using scent from anal glands, urine, and feces. In summer or autumn, females track the odor to find a mate. If there is competition for the female, males use their tails as clubs to fight for dominance. After mating, the female seeks or digs a burrow to give birth and raise her young.

Gestation time depends on species and ranges from 70 to 140 days. Asian species give birth to one to three offspring, while African pangolins usually give birth to one. At birth, the young are about 5.9 inches long and weigh between 2.8 to 15.9 ounces. Their scales are white and soft, but harden and darken within a few days.

The mother and her young remain within the burrow for the first two to four weeks after birth. The female nurses her young and wraps her body around them if threatened. Initially, offspring cling to the female's tail. As they grow, they ride on her back. Offspring are weaned around 3 months of age, but stay with their mother until they are 2 years old and sexually mature.

The life span of wild pangolins is unknown. Most probably die before they reach sexual maturity. In captivity, they have been known to live 20 years. However, pangolins are not well-adapted to captivity, so it's possible they may be able to live even longer.

A female pangolin carries her young on her back.
A female pangolin carries her young on her back. Charles Van Zyl / EyeEm, Getty Images

Conservation Status

The IUCN lists all eight species of pangolin as threatened with extinction, with classifications ranging from vulnerable to critically endangered. While all populations are (rapidly) decreasing, the number of remaining animals is unknown. Taking a census of pangolins is hampered by their nocturnal behavior and habitat preference. All pangolin species are listed under Appendix I of CITES as prohibited for international trade except via permit.

Threats

Pangolins face few predators in the wild, but are the most trafficked animal on the planet. Over one million pangolins were illegally trafficked to China and Vietnam in the last decade. The animal is poached for its meat and its scales. The scales are ground and used to make traditional medicines in Africa and Asia that are used to treat a wide variety of ailments, including asthma, cancer, and difficulty lactating. While there is no scientific evidence such treatments work, their use is deeply ingrained in local culture.

Pangolins do not fare well in captivity because of their specific diet and naturally suppressed immune function. However, recent advances have led to captive breeding of the animals, so there is some hope they may be raised and later released into natural habitats.

Yet, the other significant threat faced by the pangolin is habitat loss and degradation. Much of the animal's range is subject to deforestation.

Sources

  • Boakye, Maxwell Kwame; Pietersen, Darren William; Kotzé, Antoinette; Dalton, Desiré-Lee; Jansen, Raymond (2015-01-20). "Knowledge and uses of African pangolins as a source of traditional medicine in Ghana". PLOS ONE. 10 (1): e0117199. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0117199
  • Dickman, Christopher R. (1984). MacDonald, D. (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York: Facts on File. pp. 780–781. ISBN 978-0-87196-871-5. 
  • Mohapatra, R.K.; Panda, S. (2014). "Behavioural descriptions of Indian pangolins (Manis crassicaudata) in captivity". International Journal of Zoology. 2014: 1–7. doi:10.1155/2014/795062
  • Schlitter, D.A. (2005). "Order Pholidota". In Wilson, D.E.; Reeder, D.M (eds.). Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 530–531. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0.
  • Yu, Jingyu; Jiang, Fulin; Peng, Jianjun; Yin, Xilin; Ma, Xiaohua (2015). "The First Birth and Survival of Cub in Captivity of Critically Endangered Malayan Pangolin (Mariis javanica)". Agricultural Science & Technology. 16 (10).