For everyone who has managed to somehow not see this animal over the roughly five years since it stormed into internet popularity, I present to you, the pangolin. The pangolin is a confusing animal due to the scales on its body and their myrmecophagous, or “ant-eating”, lifestyle. First things first, for anyone who was questioning the scales, pangolins are mammals. The scales are made of keratin, just like a reptile’s, but they still have fur on their bellies, are endothermic, and have mammary glands to name a few of their mammalian traits. pangolins also aren’t related to the aardvark. They are in a group all on their own called Pholidota, and their closest relatives are Carnivora, which includes all the bears, dogs, cats, seals, and well, you get the idea. Even though pangolins are myrmecophagous, they developed this feeding style of eating ants and termites completely separately from the Anteater in a process called Convergent Evolution. Convergent Evolution means that two completely unrelated animals developed similar features, like wings on bats and birds.
Now that we have gotten some technical stuff out of the way lets look at some of the more fun parts, starting with the tongue. The tongue is coated in a mucus which quickly sticks to the ants and termites that it eats. The tongue is also long and bendy so it can move inside the tunnels of anthills with ease. When the tongue retracts, it goes into a hole at the base of the mouth and into a long sheath that curls up in the chest cavity. Because of this, if you looked in a pangolin’s mouth when their tongue is retracted you wouldn’t actually see the tongue. Having this sheath to pull the tongue into is important because their tongue is typically the length of their entire torso, so you can imagine what a mouthful that tongue would be without the sheath. The tongue is also attached between the last rib and the pelvis, unlike us who have it attached in the back of the mouth.
When the pangolin retracts its tongue, the ants get neatly scraped off at the entrance to the sheath and then swallowed. Pangolins don’t take the time to chew because, well, they don’t have teeth! To make up for the lack of teeth pangolin stomachs evolved to be similar to a bird’s gizzard, meaning the muscular walls of their stomachs squeeze and mash the ants around to break them up. Pangolins also bring sand and small pebbles into their stomachs to help with grinding up the insects. pangolins don’t create their own stomach acid like humans do, but instead use formic acid from the ants they consume to break down their food.
Pangolins have exceptionally large claws for their size, but they are not for fighting or defending. The claws are there to help with burrowing, digging, and even climbing trees. For defending itself, the pangolin uses a tactic from the playbook of another armoured animal that happens to live in North and South America, the armadillo. That’s right, it curls into a ball and uses the hard scales on its body to protect itself from animals as large as a pride of lions! It also takes a tactic from the skunk, emitting an awful odour from scent glands near the rump to make large predators leave it alone.
Unfortunately, curling into a ball and smelling bad aren’t a great defense against their biggest predator, the Human. Pangolins are thought to be the most trafficked animal in the world according the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and are caught and sold for their scales specifically. Communities in Asia and Africa hunt pangolins for food, but most pangolins killed are harvested and sold for their scales, and to a lesser extent, their claws, blood, bones, and a few other parts. Their scales are the most valuable, with a seized shipment of four tons of African pangolin scales being worth more than 1.25 million US-Dollars back in 2016. Scales are sought after for their believed value in Traditional Medicine, being used in Africa for spiritual protection, skin and fungal problems, as well as fertility problems to name a few, and similar uses reported in India and other parts of Asia. There is no scientific evidence to support the uses of pangolin scale to resolve these ailments, and with many of the ailments being fungal, wound, and fertility-related, it is well known that there are much more effective treatments that have come from modern medicine. Unfortunately, modern medicine is expensive to many of these communities and traditional values run deep, meaning that solutions may not be as simple as telling people to stop hunting pangolins.
There are currently eight species of pangolin with four from Asia and four from Africa. The Asian species are under greater extinction threat at the moment, but the African species are under ever-increasing demand to fill the black-market need that can no longer be met by the rapidly vanishing Asian species. Ethics of the use of animals aside, some animals can be sustained with an appropriate management and harvesting plan, but that is largely dependant on the rate that the animals can reproduce to sustain the harvest with humans only taking the “surplus”. Pangolins only have about one baby per year, and even that is an estimate due to the difficulty in researching pangolin reproductive habits. They aren’t the easiest animals to research in the wild and even though they have been historically kept in zoos for about 150 years it was only in the last decade or so that diligent research in captive environments provided drastic increases to the understanding of how to maintain these animals in captivity and, with any luck, reproduction will come not soon after.
For those like me that didn’t know, this is not just a problem on the other side of the world. An analysis of CITES reports done by Heinrich et al. (2016) shows that the United States of America over the last 50 years has been the largest hotspot for seizures of illegal pangolin products in the world, with Canada and Mexico relatively high on the list as well. This could mean that North America is better at detecting these shipments, but that is highly unlikely. It is more likely that we have a lot more pangolin products coming through our shores than we are aware of, so it isn’t just up to the other side of the world to put in the work to help a species survive.
Within the next few years it is possible that zoos will be able to create a healthy breeding program that can invigorate wild populations, but it will all be for nothing if the illegal trafficking of these animals doesn’t cease. What do we do then? How are we supposed to help them if we live nowhere near them? I, for one, have never even seen pangolin sold near me so how am I supposed stop someone from buying one? Well, this right here is the first step. Having a conversation about them. Letting people know that there are spectacular animals out there that are under threat from something tangible and real, and that they can be helped if we keep the conversation going.
(Digestion) The tree Pangolin Resource http://treepangolinresource.weebly.com/digestion.html
(trafficking) (US contributions) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351989416300798
(African TM uses) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/1746-4269-10-76
(indian TM uses) https://www.traffic.org/site/assets/files/3008/traffic_pub_bulletin_27_1.pdf#page=37
(Nepal uses) https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Hem_Katuwal/publication/311557761_Pangolins_Trade_Ethnic_Importance_and_its_Conservation_in_Eastern_Nepal/links/584c2b7f08ae4bc8992c3d9e/Pangolins-Trade-Ethnic-Importance-and-its-Conservation-in-Eastern-Nepal.pdf