What is a Pangolin? All About the World's Most Trafficked Animal

Sometimes called a "scaly anteater", the pangolin is a very unique animal found in Africa and Asia. It is known for its long snout, its appetite for ants, its large reptile-like scales and its tendency to roll up into a ball.

Also known as "scaly anteaters", pangolins are unique mammals that are found in Africa and Asia. They feed almost exclusively on ants and termites. A pangolin is perhaps most notable for its overlapping scales that are soft and supple in childhood but become large and hard in adulthood. The main component of these scales is keratin which is the same material found in human hair and nails.

A pangolin can curl up into a ball whenever it perceives a threat, an ability that generally helps keep the animal safe from large predators. This is because its overlapping scales act as armor. Other unique characteristics of pangolin bodies is that they have short legs and very sharp claws. Their tongues are very long and are designed for catching insects.

Unfortunately, pangolins are the most poached animal in the world. Pangolin meat is sometimes considered a delicacy and their scales are also used in some traditional medicine practices. The high demand for meat and scales leads to its illegal trade. Pangolins were previously thought to belong to the same family as the more well-known armadillo, however, new research suggests that pangolins belong to their own order called Pholidota.

3. Diet

A pangolin scavenging for food.

Pangolins are insectivorous, which means that their diets mostly consist of insects. They have a particular affinity of termites and ants. Other insects including larvae act as supplements to their diet. In order to find a meal, they depend heavily on their sense of smell and hearing because they have a poor sense of vision. They have strong front claws on their legs that they use to dig around in the ground in order to recover prey. Their long tongues also assist them in probing inside tunnels for insects. As pangolins do not have teeth, they ingest small stones that help them in grinding up insects in the stomach. They have also been known to hang from tree branches to remove bark from the trunk, which exposes the nest of insects inside.

2. Habitat

A pangolin digging in the sand.

Of the eight extant species of pangolins, four species are found in Asia and four in Africa. They live mostly in sandy soils where they can easily burrow to get food. They dig underground tunnels that measure up to 3.3 meters (eleven feet) deep. Other animals are also most likely to create burrows in the sandy soils, and the pangolins often take advantage of these holes to get their prey.

1. Quick Facts

#1 Quick Facts
  • They are nocturnal and use their strong sense of smell helps them to find insects in the dark.
  • The style of walking for some pangolins involves bending their front claws under the foot pad. Some of them can also walk bipedally (on two feet) for some distance.
  • They are the only mammals who have scales.
  • They do not have teeth.
  • They have a very strong swimming ability.
  • When they perceive danger, they can curl up in a ball.
  • If they are unable to curl up into a ball, they have the ability to cut potential predators with their sharp scales.
  • The smallest of pangolins, the long-tailed pangolin, is only around 30 cm (11 inches) long.
  • However, the largest of pangolins, the giant pangolin, is an average of 1.8 m (5.9 feet) long.
  • They are extremely ill-suited to be kept in captivity.

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