Defining a Pangolin
Pangolins differ in size and can be as huge as a big armadillo or as small as a little cat. They tend to be nocturnal, solitary animals that live in burrows. They use their sticky, long tongues for eating termites and ants. Pangolins have around eight species, four in Asia (Chinese, Sunda Philippine, and Indian pangolins), and Africa (Temminck’s Ground, Giant Ground, White-bellied and Black-bellied pangolins).
What does a Pangolin look like?
Often referred to as a ‘scaly anteater’, the pangolin is a pretty weird-looking creature with its body covered in scales. Some people have also named it the artichoke with a tail as well as the pinecone with legs. Even though many consider the pangolin to be a reptile, it is actually a mammal. Interestingly, it is the only mammal that has scales all over its body. These scales are made up of Keratin, the protein which you find in human nails and hair.
The Uses of the Scales
Pangolins are the only mammals that have these scales on their bodies. The scales of a pangolin create a protective barrier that helps it in defending itself from predators. Pangolins, when threatened, curl up into a tight ball for protecting themselves. It is this action after which the pangolins have been named. The word ‘pangolin’ comes from ‘penggulung’, a Malay for ‘roller’. The sharp scales over their tails are also used by them for deterring attackers.
The Unfortunate Reality
Sadly, pangolins are now becoming more famous as they are regarded as the most illegally trafficked mammals in the world. Their meat is regarded as a delicacy, while their scales go into many traditional medicines and folk remedies. Even though international law protects them now, all eight mammal species are either endangered or vulnerable.
The Behavioral Traits of a Pangolin
Most commonly, the pangolins are nocturnal mammals that find insects by using their incredible sense of smell. The long-tailed pangolins are active throughout the day, whereas the other pangolin species usually spend the day curled up in a ball and sleeping. The ground-dwelling pangolins dig deep tunnels that can even be over 11 feet in depth while the arboreal species inhabit the hollow trees.
Some pangolins bent their front claw under their footpad while walking. However, they use their entire footpad on the rear limbs. Some pangolins also show a bipedal stance and walk some steps bipedally. These creatures are also known for their excellent swimming abilities.
The Eating Habits of a Pangolin
Pangolins are insectivorous creatures that usually feed on different species of termites and ant. Sometimes, they can even supplement their diet with larvae and other insects. Pangolins can be considered very particular when it comes to food choices. Usually, they eat just one or two insect species, even if plenty of species are available. A pangolin can eat around 5 to 7 ounces of insects in a day. They are significant regulators of the termite population in natural habitats. (See How Much Does It Cost To Own A Horse?)
Interesting Physical Characteristics
Pangolins lack teeth and also have an inferior vision. They heavily depend on hearing and smell to overcome the sight barriers. They also have other physical features that aid them in consuming termites and ants. They have a sturdy skeletal structure with strong front legs, which come in handy in tearing through the termite mounds.
Their strong front claws help them in digging into the ground, vegetation, and trees to look for prey. Then, they use their long tongues for probing inside insect tunnels for retrieving their prey. The structure of the stomach and tongue of a pangolin helps them obtain and digest insects. They have sticky saliva, which causes termites and ants to stick on to the tongues while the pangolins are hunting across insect tunnels. As they have no teeth, they are also incapable of chewing.
However, pangolins ingest gastroliths or small stones while foraging, which gets collected in the stomach and help them grind the ants. This region of their tummy is known as the gizzard. The keratinous spines also cover this area and also help in further grinding and digesting the prey. Some species also use their prehensile and strong tail to hang on tree branches, stripping away bark from tree trunks. This exposes the insect nests formed inside. One such species is the tree pangolins.