Pangolin Scales: Understanding Their Unique Role in Nature

Pangolins, covered in keratin scales, feed mainly on ants and termites using a long sticky tongue, and are primarily found in Asia and Africa.

Pangolin Biology and Species

A pangolin curled up, scales glistening in the sunlight, foraging for ants and termites in a lush, tropical forest

Pangolins, often recognized by their unique scales, are solitary and primarily nocturnal mammals found in Asia and Africa.

Their keratinous scales, behavior, and diet are distinct among mammals, making them an intriguing subject of study in the animal kingdom.

Physical Characteristics

Pangolins are known for their scales that cover most of their body.

These scales are made of keratin, the same material as human fingernails.

An adult pangolin can have up to 1,000 scales, which collectively can account for up to 20% of its body weight.

The tail and head are also covered in scales, but they are notably absent from the undersides, inside legs, face, and throat.

When threatened, pangolins are able to curl into a tight ball, with the scales acting as armor to protect them from predators.

Despite their reptile-like appearance, pangolins lack teeth and rely on a sticky tongue to feed on ants and termites.

For information on their genomes and the development of these unique characteristics, the article “Pangolin genomes and the evolution of mammalian scales and immunity” provides insight.

Diet and Habitat

Pangolins are myrmecophagous, feeding mainly on ants and termites.

They utilize their long, sticky tongues to access insects in deep burrows or within tight spaces in their habitats.

These mammals are also known to consume other insects, their larvae, and eggs.

They lack a stomach lining that secretes digestive enzymes, so they ingest small stones that aid in grinding down the insect prey within their stomachs.

Pangolins are found in various habitats, ranging from tropical forests to savannas and even grasslands.

African pangolins often inhabit burrows and are adept at digging, while Asian species may use trees or dense vegetation.

The WWF provides more details about their protected status in relation to their habitat, found in the article “Pangolin | Species | WWF”.

Species Diversity and Range

There are eight recognized species of pangolins split between Asia and Africa, classified under the family Manidae.

The four Asian species are the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), the Malayan or Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), the Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), and the Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis).

In contrast, the four African species include the Black-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tetradactyla), the White-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), the Giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea), and the Ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii).

Pangolins are widely distributed across their range, which extends through parts of Asia to many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Though their geographic range is broad, the populations of various species have been declining due to several threats to their survival.

An overarching view of pangolin classification and distribution can be seen in the article titled “The Complete Phylogeny of Pangolins: Scaling Up Resources for the …”.

Conservation Status

All eight species of pangolins are protected under international law, and they are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Both the Chinese and Malayan pangolins are classified as Critically Endangered, while others like the Sunda pangolin and the Philippine pangolin are listed as Endangered.

The primary threats include poaching for their meat and scales, habitat loss, and illegal wildlife trade.

Significant efforts from conservation groups aim to combat poaching and promote the protection of pangolin habitats, especially in countries with high trafficking, such as Nigeria.

Moreover, some nations have stepped forward with legislation to enhance the protection of pangolins, recognizing the urgent need to prevent their slide into extinction.

Investigating the conservation status and efforts can be further explored through the resource “Pangolin genomes and the evolution of mammalian scales and … – PubMed”.

Pangolin Trade and Conservation Efforts

A pangolin scales being traded and confiscated, while conservation efforts protect the species

Pangolin populations are under serious threat due to poaching and illegal trade, especially for their scales and meat.

Numerous conservation and protection initiatives have been implemented to combat this issue and advocate globally for their survival.

Threats to Pangolins

Pangolins, often called scaly anteaters, are among the most trafficked mammals in the world.

Their scales, used in traditional medicine, and meat, considered a delicacy in regions like China and Vietnam, place them at grave risk.

Despite their ecological importance and specialist diet on termites, which aids in pest control, their numbers continue to decline due to illegal hunting in Africa and Asia.

Illegal Trade and Demand

The demand for pangolin scales and meat has fueled an extensive illegal trade, predominately in China and Vietnam.

These scales are mistakenly believed to have medicinal power, including false claims regarding cancer treatment.

Reports have highlighted staggering figures, with over a million pangolins trafficked over a decade, making them the most trafficked mammal.

Conservation and Protection Initiatives

Conservation efforts are underway globally, focusing on monitoring pangolin populations and informing both local and international management strategies.

All eight species, from the Sunda pangolin to the African pangolins like the black-bellied and white-bellied species, are afflicted by trafficking. Strategies include habitat protection, anti-poaching measures, and alternative livelihood programs for communities involved in the trade.

Global Impact and Advocacy

The vast scale of trafficking has significant global ramifications, affecting biodiversity and ecosystems.

Advocacy by conservation groups shines a light on the critical role of pangolins in their natural habitat, controlling insect populations and affecting the health of forests.

Law enforcement seizures of scales and meat have reached all-time highs, indicating that while the illegal wildlife trade is still rampant, efforts are being intensified to curb the trade and ensure the survival of this unique species.