You would be forgiven (if like me) you had never heard of an pangolin before. These prehistoric looking creatures with their armored shell and strange walk look like scaly anteaters and were first thought to be related to these, armadillos and sloths, but are in fact most closely related to Carnivores which include hyenas and wolves. They are also one of the most threatened species on earth, and may even go extinct before most of us register their existence.

So why have we not heard of them, and what makes these animals so unique? We’ve put together a list of truly fascinating facts to bring you up to speed with this species and why it’s one of the most trafficked animals in the world.

pangolin photo credit and copyright gary parker
The pangolin is a secretive and fascinating creature that is sadly on the brink of extinction (Photo Credit and Copyright: Gary Parker)

1. There Are Eight Species Of Pangolin

Found in tropical regions of Africa and Asia, there are eight species of pangolin still found in the world today: four Asian species (Chinese, Indian, Malayan and Palawan) and four African pangolin species: the Cape pangolin, Tree pangolin, Long-tailed pangolin and Giant ground pangolin.

Over its 80 million year evolution, there have been several other species of pangolin which have all become extinct.

2. Pangolin Means ‘Something That Rolls Up’

The pangolin takes its name from the Malay word ‘pengguling’, meaning ‘rolling up’, which is a direct reference to the animal rolling into a defensive, near impossible-to-penetrate ball to protect its face and soft underbelly. Sadly this defense mechanism also makes it an easy target for smugglers to simply pick them up and take them away.

cape pangolin curled up picture credit and copyright african pangolin working group
A Cape pangolin curled up into a tight ball (Photo Credit and Copyright: African Pangolin Working Group)

3. They Are The Only Mammal Covered In Scales

Pangolins are the only mammals in the world whose bodies are covered in large scales. Made of keratin (the same substance that our nails, hair, bird claws and rhino horns are made of) these hard, overlapping scales account for 20% of a pangolin’s weight. The scales (that continue to grow throughout the animal’s lifetime) are extremely hard and act as a protection against predators.

In traditional Chinese medicine, these scales are dried and roasted to treat palsy, drain pus and stimulate lactation. Pangolin scales are prized in the East for their supposed healing properties and can easily fetch a staggering $3,000 a kilogram on the black market.

4. A Pangolin’s Tongue Is Longer Than Its Body

Pangolins feed on insects (up to 70 million per year!) and use their sticky, strong tongues (they don’t have any teeth) to collect these. When extended, a pangolin’s tongue stretches longer than its head and body put together and can measure over 40cm long. This long tongue is stored deep in their chest cavity, and the insects are ground down by stones and keratinous spines found in their stomachs.

tree pangolin photo credit and copyright ubuntunewsrus flickr
A Tree pangolin using its sticky tongue to catch insects (Photo Credit and Copyright: Ubuntunewsru’s flickr)

5. They Can Outwit Even The Big Cats

Pangolin’s main predators (aside from humans) are the big cats which include lions, leopards, cheetahs, and tigers. These scaly mammals can often outsmart the big cats simply by rolling into a tight ball and using their scales as armor, which is even too hard for a lion to bite through. The cats also don’t quite know what to make of the rolled up mammal and will often lose interest and walk away.

A group of lions trying to pry open a pangolin in Kenyas Masai Mara Pic and copyright by Holly Cheese
A group of lions in Kenya’s Masai Mara trying to pry open a pangolin (Photo Credit and Copyright: Holly Cheese)

6. Like Skunks They Emit A Noxious Acid

When feeling threatened, pangolins (similar to skunks, although they are unable to spray the liquid) are able to emit a noxious-smelling acid from glands which are situated near their anus to ward off predators.

7. Nobody Knows Exactly How Long Pangolins live

The oldest recorded pangolin lived in captivity for 19 years, and so its lifespan is presumed to be around twenty years if left in the wild, but no one knows for sure how long they live as these shy creatures have not been extensively studied. Pangolins are also rarely found in zoos as these mainly solitary animals don’t do well in captivity which leads to the animal becoming depressed and malnourished.

8. Pangolins Have Really Poor Eyesight

Most pangolins are nocturnal, with only the long-tailed pangolin (found in west and central Africa) being active during the day. They possess very small eyes in relation to their body size and thus have really poor eyesight, relying mainly on their hearing and a strong sense of smell to locate the ant hills and termite mounds on which they feed.

baby pangolin photo credit and copyright tikki hywood trust
A baby pangolin with its tiny eyes and developing scales (Photo Credit and Copyright: Tikki Hywood Trust)

9. Courtship Is Tricky

The male and female pangolins differ vastly in weight (they are thus classed as sexually dimorphic), with the male weighing up to 50 percent more than the female and the Indian species even reaching 90 percent! As pangolins prefer to lead a solitary life (aside from the mating season) and they don’t have a defined mating season, finding a suitable mate can be difficult. To attract the opposite sex the males mark their territory with urine and then wait for the female to find their scent.

10. Millions Have been Sold And Killed In The Last Decade

Man is the pangolin’s greatest threat, with an estimated 100,000 of these innocent creatures being captured annually from across Africa and Asia to be shipped to countries such as Vietnam and China where their scales and meat are sold. All eight species of pangolin are now so threatened with extinction that they feature on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and are under international protection.

pangolins captured with bushmeat
Two pangolins hang amoungst a plunder of freshly killed animals for bushmeat (Photo Credit and Copyright: Africa Geographic Magazine)

With its kind eyes and gentle demeanor, the pangolin easily wins over hearts, and it is heartbreaking to know that this beautiful creature is on the brink of extinction. A lot needs to be done to protect this fragile animal (which shockingly accounts for up to 20% of the entire wildlife black market) if it is going to survive.