• What is a pangolin?

What is a pangolin?

Pangolins are some of the most unique and intriguing animals in the natural world. Sometimes called a scaley anteater, this endearing creature is relatively unknown to most people. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, pangolins were associated with the source of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, and they were thrust into the global spotlight. What became abundantly clear, though, was that the majority of people don’t know much about pangolins, so in this article, we are going to answer some of the most common questions about pangolins, starting with…

Is a pangolin a mammal or a reptile?

Despite what many may think, pangolins are not reptiles but actually mammals. Pangolins are the only mammals that are wholly-covered covered in scales.

They use these scales to protect themselves from predators such as leopards, hyenas and lions. If a pangolin is threatened, it will immediately curl into a tight ball and use its sharp-scales tails to defend itself.

What is a Pangolin? © Helena Atkinson

© Helena Atkinson

Where do pangolins live?

There are eight species of pangolins, and they live in various habitats, from tropical forests to arid deserts. Four pangolin species can be found across Asia, the Indian Pangolin, the Chinese (Formosan) Pangolin, the Malayan (Sunda) Pangolin, and the Palawan (Philippine) Pangolin.

Then a little closer to home, the four African pangolin species are found across Southern, West, Central and East Africa. These are the Temminck’s Ground Pangolin, Giant Ground Pangolin, The Black-Bellied Pangolin and The White-Bellied Pangolin.

On this page, we are going to cover the characteristics and behaviours of The African pangolin species below.

Giant ground Pangolin Uganda - Smutsia Gigantea

Giant Ground Pangolin
(Smutsia gigantea)

temmnicks ground pangolin uganda smutsia temminckii

Temminck’s Ground Pangolin
(Smutsia temminckii)

black bellied pangolin cameroon phataginus tetradactyla

The Black-Bellied Pangolin
(Phataginus tetradactyla)

white bellied pangolin kenya phataginus tricuspis

The White-Bellied Pangolin
(Phataginus tricuspis)

What do pangolins eat?

Pangolins are insectivorous and predominantly on a diet of ants and termites, which they also supplement with crickets, earthworms, worms, flies and even bee larvae. Pangolins locate insect nests using their incredibly well-developed sense of smell. 

Voraciously digging ants and termites from mounds, stumps, and fallen logs with their claws, they use their extremely long sticky tongues to capture and eat them. Pangolins’ insatiable appetite for insects gives them an important role in their ecosystem: pest control. 

Estimates indicate that one adult pangolin can consume more than 70 million insects annually. Pangolins have special muscles that seal their nostrils and ears shut, protecting them from attacking insects. They also have special muscles in their mouths which prevent ants and termites from escaping after capture.

Another interesting fact is that pangolins are picky eaters. Despite countless varieties of ants and termites, each pangolin has its favourites and will move onto a different mound if it can’t find its personal favourites!

Scaly anteaters - Temminck's pangolin eating in Mala Mala Game Reserve South Africa

© Helena Atkinson

How long do pangolin live?

Little information is available about how long pangolins live in the wild, but records show pangolins live up to 20 years in captivity. That being said, it is very unlikely that you will ever see a pangolin in a zoo because pangolins do not survive well in captivity, and most die very soon after entering captivity.

Become A Pangolin Guardian

Are pangolins a type of armadillo?

While pangolins do share a few characteristics and behaviours with armadillos, they are not related and are surprisingly more closely related to cats, dogs and bears!

What are the unique characteristics of pangolins?

Pangolins are solitary mammals and are mostly nocturnal – most pangolins live on the ground, but some, like the black-bellied and white-bellied pangolins, also climb trees. Interestingly, pangolins range quite drastically in size – from the size of a large housecat to over four feet long.

The ground pangolin, also known as Temminck's pangolin, Cape pangolin or steppe pangolin, is one of four species of pangolins which can be found in Africa

© Grant Atkinson

When pangolins feel threatened, they roll into a ball to protect themselves; on top of that, they can release a foul-smelling fluid from a gland at the base of their tails. Pangolins possess elongated snouts and remarkably long tongues that they employ to consume ants and termites. They excavate these insects from mounds using their robust front claws before lapping them up. They can close their noses and ears to keep ants out when eating.

What is the size and weight of the pangolin species?

When pangolins feel threatened, they roll into a ball to protect themselves; on top of that, they can release a foul-smelling fluid from a gland at the base of their tails. Pangolins possess elongated snouts and remarkably long tongues that they employ to consume ants and termites. They excavate these insects from mounds using their robust front claws before lapping them up. They can close their noses and ears to keep ants out when eating.

Pangolins are about 150 mm long when born and weigh about 340 grams. Male and female pangolins differ in weight; in most species, males are 10-50 per cent heavier than females; that said, a pangolin’s scales make up one-fifth of its entire body weight. 

Johan Vermeulen - Eye Of The Pangolin - The Black-Bellied Pangolin - One Of the Long Tailed Pangolin | African tree pangolin

© Johan Vermeulen

Pangolin species exhibit a range of sizes, with three larger species leading the scale. The largest among them is the giant pangolin, with an average adult weight of approximately 33kg. Following closely is the Indian pangolin, reaching around 13kg, and then Temminck’s ground pangolin, reaching up to 12kg.

The remaining four pangolin species are relatively smaller. The Sunda pangolin weighs around 4.9kg, while the Chinese pangolin weighs approximately 3.6kg. The white-bellied tree pangolin weighs about 2.7kg, and the smallest species, the black-bellied tree pangolin, weighs a mere 1.5kg.

How can I identify different species of pangolins, such as the Indian pangolin and the Chinese pangolin?

  • Eight pangolin species

While the eight pangolin species have many similarities in their characteristics and habits – they are also a few key differences. For instance, the four Asian pangolins can be told apart from the African species by the presence of bristles which emerge from between the scales.

The Chinese pangolin, Indian pangolin, Giant Ground pangolin and Temminck’s Ground pangolin live mostly on the ground. They have claws on the front feet that are significantly larger than the hind feet, and the tail is wide and similar in length to the pangolin’s body.

The Philippine pangolin, Sunda pangolin, black-bellied tree pangolin and white-bellied tree pangolin spend much of their time in trees, so their claws on the front feet and hind feet are similar in size, and their tail is prehensile, narrow and longer than the pangolin’s body.

How do pangolins defend themselves?

When feeling threatened, pangolins roll up in a ball so only their scaly suit of armour is exposed. These sharp scales make it incredibly hard for big cats such as lions and leopards to bite through. They also deter predators by hissing, puffing, and lashing their sharp-edged tails. You can also help us protect pangolins here.

Pangolins are endangered species - image in national geographic

© Lance van de Vyver

Can pangolins swim?

Interestingly! Pangolins are capable swimmers. However, they do prefer to be on land more often than not!

Pangolins are certainly not averse to water and can sometimes be found mud bathing which is great way to get rid of external parasites.

Eight Species | African Pangolins | One of four species in Africa - overlapping scales

© Grant Atkinson

How do pangolins communicate with each other?

Pangolins are quiet creatures and make very few sounds, but males, for example, rarely make a soft hooting noise. As they move or climb, their scales can be heard rubbing against one another or past the grass and vegetation. That being said, when waking up or eating, they audibly snort and chuff.

How do pangolins give birth and care for their young?

Just like humans and elephants, female pangolins have pectoral mammary glands and give birth to live young. Females give birth to around one pup a year (unless, on rare occasions, she has twins). There are no records of full gestation periods, but various authors have speculated between 3 and 10 months. Temminck’s ground pangolin does have an estimated gestation period of 5 months, and it is also believed that this ground pangolin species only breed every second year.

When born, pangolin pups’ scales are fully formed but soft and pale and begin to harden over the first few days. Mothers nurture their young in nesting burrows if terrestrial or in a hollow tree or log if they are arboreal. She will leave the baby in the burrow while going out to eat but returns periodically to nurse the pup. When sleeping, the mother will protectively roll around her baby (this will happen if she feels threatened).

When the pup is still an infant, it will ride on the base of the mother’s tail, hooking its claws under the mother’s scales. Pups become independent at 3–4 months, and as they become more adventurous, will alternate riding on the mother’s back with foraging nearby. 

How do pangolins contribute to their ecosystems?

Pangolins play a crucial role in both Asian and African habitats; between slurping up massive amounts of ants and termites and burrowing to create their homes, they are an asset to their ecosystems.

“By their behaviour of excavating burrows, they actually affect the soil processes, including turning over organic matter and aerating the soil,” says Neil Greenwood, IFAW’s director of wildlife rescue. “They’re essentially little gardeners.”

Kyle Smith - pangolin searching for termite and ant nests | terrestrial pangolin burrows

© Kyle Smith

Can pangolins see well, or do they rely on other senses?

With their small cone-shaped heads and jaws lacking teeth, pangolins have incredibly long, strong, sticky tongues that are perfect for reaching ants and termites in deep cavities. Due to pangolins having poor sight, they locate these nests with their sense of smell, which is incredibly strong.

Pangolin Conservation

Eye of the Pangolin is a powerful, awareness-raising film about the critical situation facing the African pangolin. Pangolin.Africa partnered with Pangolin Photo Safaris, Biggest Leaf Travel and award-winning South African filmmakers Bruce Young and Johan Vermeulen to produce this documentary that tells the story of two men on a mission to get all four species of African pangolin on camera for the very first time.

As they travel the continent to learn more about those caring for and studying pangolins, they are captivated by these strange, secretive creatures and document the race to save them from being poached to extinction.

Why are pangolins endangered – is it because of pangolin scales?

Unfortunately, it is believed that pangolins are one of the world’s most trafficked non-human mammals. The IUCN lists the four Asian species as critically endangered. Tens of thousands of pangolins are poached yearly, killed for their scales for use in traditional Chinese medicine and meat, a delicacy among some ultra-wealthy in China and Vietnam. The four African species are listed as vulnerable to endangered.

Ultimately, all species face declining populations because of illegal trade, electrocution by electric fences, road mortalities, and habitat loss. 

Pangolin Scales | one of eight species - pangolin species occur in Southern Africa

Why are pangolins hunted or poached?

Pangolin scales consist of keratin, a substance found in fingernails, hair, and horns. Despite lacking any substantiated medicinal properties, these scales are utilised in traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine to try and combat ailments such as arthritis, lactation, tumours and ulcers. Additionally, pangolins are hunted for their meat, be it for bushmeat or selling pangolin meat as fine delicacies in Asia. 

Pangolin Scales - making pangolins one of the most trafficked mammal

© Helena Atkinson

How many pangolins are left in the world?

Depending on their species and region, pangolins are classified as critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable. While many organisations and researchers are working on studies to share more insights on the overall pangolin population, these insights are usually localised to specific regions and pangolins. Furthermore, due to the elusive and nocturnal nature of pangolins, it is challenging to provide an exact number of how many pangolins are left in the world. What we do know though is that sightings of pangolins are becoming rarer and rarer which is obviously not a good sign.

What is being done to protect pangolins from extinction?

Despite all species of pangolins being banned from international commercial trade, much work and conservation still go into stopping the killing, trafficking and demand for pangolins. Conservation initiatives include:

Reducing the demand for pangolin scales and meat through targeted campaigns.

Enforcement of anti-poaching units.

Combating trafficking through international and local law enforcement, public education and awareness, community engagement, and conservation planning. 

How can people help in pangolin conservation efforts?

The key to pangolin conservation is to raise awareness about pangolins. This can be done by sharing reliable and well-researched information on social media and with friends and families. Additionally, donating to verified pangolin-centred NGOs / NPOs goes incredibly far in Pangolin conservation.

For example, when donating to Pangolin.Africa, all funds contribute towards much-needed research of the four African species of pangolins and implementing protection and rehabilitation projects on the ground.

Pangolin carer to help plight against their endangered species status | critically endangered

© Helena Atkinson

Can pangolins be kept as pets?

Not only is it illegal to keep pangolins as pets, but pangolins are also solitary animals, and they can be easily stressed when they encounter another large animal – including a human – so even approaching them can be detrimental to their health.

What should you do if you see a pangolin in the wild?

  • pangolin guardians | what is a pangolin 01

Seeing a pangolin in the wild is a super rare privilege, and some might say the holy grail for all nature and wildlife enthusiasts spending time in the wild. It’s important that we behave appropriately when we do see a pangolin, as all too often, people think it’s ok to approach a pangolin in the wild, even if it’s curled up and not moving. This, however, is incredibly stressful for the pangolin and is not advisable.

If you would like to learn more about pangolins and what to do if you see one in the wild, then we invite you to become a Pangolin Guardian.

Becoming a Pangolin Guardian is a simple (and free) process; all you have to do is complete this short online course. Visit guardians.pangolin.africa to enrol and start the course. As a Pangolin Guardian, it’s your responsibility to share information about these wonderful animals with as many people as possible.

Because if people don’t know…why should they care.