Superficially speaking, pangolins resemble anteaters, with their long snouts and tongues, or maybe sloths, with their long and imposing claws, or possibly even armadillos, with their plated armor. The truth is, pangolins aren’t related to any of those animals, and their resemblance is the result of evolution giving them similar tools to the aforementioned animals.
The similar features between pangolins and other animals is the result of what is known in science as convergent evolution, a phenomenon where creatures adapt to similar pressures and circumstance by gaining similar abilities, forms and tools. All of this despite being completely unrelated. In fact, the pangolin’s nearest relatives are carnivores, a superfamily encompassing felines, canines, weasels, bears, hyenas and more. Exactly when and how pangolins diverged so dramatically from their carnivorous cousins is unknown.
The most distinct feature of pangolins are their tight scale armor, which is very similar to that of reptiles, both in form and material. Their scales are made out of keratin, the same material that composes our nails and hair. They are the only mammal that has these kind of scales (for comparison’s sake, an armadillo’s armor is actually made of bone). The scales are leaf-shaped and interlock over each other and serve a huge function in keeping the pangolin safe from predators or from termite and ant bites.
Much like the similarly-shaped anteaters, armadillos and aardvarks, the diet of a pangolin consists of ants, termites and larvae. They employ their large front claws to dig out ant hills and termite mounds. They trap their food using their especially long tongues that are covered with a particularly viscous saliva which helps trap the insects. Since pangolins lack teeth, they swallow up stones that help grind the food they ingest.
Depending on the species, pangolins either live in deep burrows in the ground or inside hollow trees. Their powerful claws help them both dig a suitable tunnel or climb high up a tree. Their muscular tail is prehensile, meaning that they can grasp unto branches as they are climbing.
When attacked, pangolins have two defenses: they spray a pungent chemical from their tail area, much like a skunk, and if that does not deter their would-be hunter, they roll into a nigh-impenetrable ball of sharp scales. Even the most fearsome of predators will find cracking open the pangolin too much trouble, and would rather move on to easier prey.
While their scales are highly effective against the teeth and claws of lions and leopards, they don’t do much to protect pangolins from human hunters. Pangolins can be found in much of Africa and south Asia, and they are regularly hunted in all of their habitats. They are poached for their meat and because locals ascribe mystical and medicinal properties to the pangolin’s scales. An estimated 100,000 pangolins are trafficked every year to China and Vietnam, making it the most trafficked animal in the world.
Pangolins aren’t just adorable, they serve an incredibly important ecological role in regulating termite populations, and we owe it to them to spread education about this unique creature, and save it from superstitious witch doctors and unnecessary game hunting.