It could be a Pokémon. It could be a dragon’s egg. It could even be a Transformer.
But actually, this is a pangolin. It’s not surprising that the pangolin looks so bizarre to us; its biology is unique even among other species in the natural world. In fact, scientists listed it as the sole species in the order of Pholidota, a grouping within scientific taxonomy used to classify organisms. The only Pholidotes in existence today are the eight species of pangolin, a tiny number when compared to other orders like Carnivora, which has more than 270 species. Within the pangolin family there are those that live in trees, and those who inhabit the ground and underbrush, both found throughout Africa and Southeast Asia in habitats ranging from savannas to rainforests.
Having no teeth, these creatures live off of termites and ants. They use their long, sticky tongues to catch insects and two stomach chambers that aid digestion when they swallow insects whole. The pangolin has one of the longest tongues proportional to its size of any mammal. The Giant Pangolin’s tongue measures in at an impressive 27.5 inches! Unlike humans, a pangolin’s tongue is anchored to its sternum, a bone found in the chest area. In pangolins, the sternum has an extremely long, modified posterior section called the xiphoid process, which actually attaches muscles all the way down the abdomen wall and curves back behind the internal organs near the pelvis. This positioning greatly limits the pangolin’s ability to vocalize.
Instead of communicating through sound, pangolins use their incredible sense of smell to send signals to one another by excreting unique scents to mark their territory. Pangolins are solitary and nocturnal creatures that roam the jungles, savannas and forests like vigilante exterminators, eating ants and marking their territory by leaving odors that warn other pangolins to stay away. Or, if it’s mating season, to come hither.
You will never see pangolins swapping jokes at the local watering hole; they are so solitary that when forced together for long periods of time, pangolins can develop ulcers from stress. Male pangolins have even been known to fight to the death when forced together in captivity. That is not to say that pangolins cannot coexist peacefully; pangolin mothers carry their young around on their tails until the next baby is born, typically giving birth around once a year.
The most striking characteristic of the pangolin is its scales; they’re literally as tough as nails. Their scales are made of keratin - the same material found in human nails, which protects them from some pretty fierce predators. Pangolins are born with the same number of scales that they have all of their life, which harden rapidly as they grow older. When the pangolin feels threatened, it curls into a tight ball like a ‘roly poly’ pillbug, using its incredibly strong tail muscles to completely cover its unscaled underbelly for long periods of time. This position makes it virtually impossible for lions or wild dogs to sink their teeth into a pangolin ball.
However well protected these bundles of toenails may be to their natural predators, pangolins are helpless against humans and are the world's most trafficked mammal. An estimated 40,000-81,250 pangolins were collected in 2013 alone, but it could be more- since wildlife traffickers don’t exactly submit their numbers. While conservation efforts and international laws are being enacted to protect the pangolin, their biggest predators are poachers. In China and parts of Southeast Asia, the pangolin is considered a medicinal cure for a variety of ailments, including cancer, though this claim is completely groundless. In some parts of Africa, pangolins are seen as a good omen and are believed to bring good luck to those who eat them. Additionally, clear-cutting forested areas for agricultural purposes destroys termite mounds and tree based ants that pangolins rely on for nourishment and survival.
To date, two pangolin species are classified as Critically Endangered and all species are protected under National and International laws. Poaching, in conjunction with habitat destruction, is rapidly affecting the pangolin population. Soon, the creature you never knew existed may very well not exist at all.
Help raise awareness about how wonderful and unique pangolins are, and educate those around you with facts about this species. Continue to learn about conservation efforts against the illegal trade of pangolins and other animals; it’s not too late to help save endangered species!
By Paige Rylander, Public Affairs Intern, National Museum of Natural History
With specials thanks to Megan Krol, Collections Technician, National Museum of Natural History