The pangolin is one of the world's strangest-looking wild animals. Found in Africa and Asia, it has a large muscular tail and is covered with armor-like overlapping scales that protect it when it is threatened and it forms an impenetrable armored ball. It lives in both rain forests and savannah grasslands. Little studied, they are natural pest controllers, gobbling up ants and termites.

Pangolins are similar in shape to anteaters and are armored like armadillos. David Attenborough wrote: they “protect themselves with armor” made up of “roughly triangular horney plates that overlap one another like the scale son a fir cone. The pangolins are so specialized that they can now eat nothing but ants and termites for their jaws have lost all their teeth and little more tham a curving tube housing a very long tongue. Several species of them spend their lives in trees and clamber about with the aid of a long grasping tail.

There are seven species of pangolins dispersed but uncommon over southern China, Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Africa. They range in size from two kilogram tree-dwellers to a 30-kilogram. 85-centimeter-long pound African species. The most common species, the Cape pangolin, reaches lengths of 110 centimeters with about half of that being tail. It spends its time entirely on the ground.

The Chinese pangolin of east and south Asia weighs two to seven kilograms. Its body and head is 54 to 80 centimeters long. The tail is 24 to 36 centimeters long. It pale, yellowish scales are up to five centimeters across. The Cape pangolin of eastern and southern Africa weighs 15 to 48 kilograms. Its body and head is 50 to 60 centimeters long. The tail is 40 to 50 centimeters long.

Pangolin meat is a prized delicacy and pangolin scales are greatly sought after for traditional medicines. Their skins are used in making shoes and boots. Between 1980 and 1985, 175,000 pangolin hides were imported into the United States, The practice has since been discontinued.

Pangolin Characteristics

pangolin scales

Pangolins have short legs, a long snout and a thick prehensile tail. The head is small and cone-shaped. The ears are small. Even average size pangolins have a very long tongue that can extend 40 centimeters beyond its mouth, allowing them to reach deep into ant and termite nests. The animal has no teeth and its lower jaw is just slivers of bone. Its powerful stomach muscles “chew” its food.

Pangolins are covered in armor made up of horny plates, which overlap like shingles in a roof. The armor serves as camouflage as well as proving protection. The pangolin’s underside is naked except for a few sparse hairs. On Chinese pangolins and other species the snout, cheeks, throat and inner limbs are also not covered by scales. When it is rolled into a ball none of the soft areas are exposed. On each of forelegs are three long claws (extensions of three of five toes). They are used mainlt to dig out holes in ant and termite nests. The claws on the hind legs are shorter. The pangolin’s claws and prehensile tail make it both a powerful burrower and agile tree climber.

Pangolins are the only mammal in the world with proper scales Jeremy Hance of wrote: “For millions of years the pangolin has depended on its scales to keep it safe. Made of keratin, like human fingernails and rhino horn, the scales become strong and sharp as pangolins age, providing them with tough protection against a forest full of predators. A single pangolin can sport up to around 1,000 individually fitting scale and when they roll into a ball they present a predator with a set of armor that any medieval knight would have envied. [Source: Jeremy Hance,, February 11, 2013 -]

Pangolins are around insects a lot and don’t seem to mind having them crawl all over their bodies. They have special muscles in their nose and eyes to close off these sensitive areas. Sometimes they will open up their scales and let ants climb on their skin, apparently to let them consume irritating skin parasites.

Pangolin Uniqueness

Jeremy Hance of wrote: “If you want to picture a pangolin think of a small anteater and then cover it in scaly armor, such as you might imagine on a dragon. Along with these telltale scales, the pangolin has a long snout, with a supple tongue for efficiently gobbling thousands of ants and termites; it sports long claws to dig up termite mounds and walks on its knuckles to keep these claws in prime shape; in addition pangolins have skunk-like anal scent glands to repel predators. Strong as a five-limbed circus acrobat (counting their prehensile tail), pangolins are incredible tree-climbers and, even more surprisingly, excellent swimmers. But perhaps, the pangolins most famous behavior is its ability to roll up into a scaly ball, an excellent defense against non-human predators. In fact, the word pangolin comes from the Malay word 'penggulung,' which means 'roller.' These seemingly hodge-podge traits have made pangolins successful enough to conquer two continents with the eight species split evenly between Asia and Africa. [Source: Jeremy Hance,, February 11, 2013 -]

“If the general appearance of pangolins isn't weird enough, their place on the mammal tree of life is just as surprising. Although they look like an anteater in scale-mail, it turns out pangolins are not at all related to anteaters. Instead, recent genetic evidence has found that their closest relatives are actually carnivores, despite the fact that pangolins completely lack one thing all carnivores have: teeth. And, of course, pangolin don't eat meat in the conventional sense, but gobble up insects. Not surprisingly then, pangolins and carnivores are only distantly related: the scaly anteaters split from carnivores an incredible 70 million years ago, meaning that the world's eight pangolins occupy a wholly unique place on Earth. Taxonomists have even given them their own order: Pholidota. -

“This make pangolins a prime example of what scientists call convergent evolution. Although wholly unrelated to the Americas' anteaters, the pangolin has evolved a similar body type, including hefty claws, long snout, and long maneuverable tongue. Both animals—pangolins and anteaters—do nothing but eat insects like ants and termites, and it appears that this diet favors certain traits to the point that two completely different mammal families on alien continents could look almost like twins, albeit one hairy and one scaly.” -

Pangolin Behavior

Pangolins are solitary, nocturnal animals. They sleep during the day in burrows (sometimes as many as 70 different ones scattered over a large territory). They can walk on their hind legs but most move along on all fours.

When a pangolin is threatened or attacked it rolls up into a ball — with its head sandwiched against its stomach and its muscular tail wrapped around its body — and emits an unpleasant smell like a skunk. Not even a lion or tiger can not pry one open. Pangolins also escape predators by climbing trees, digging into burrows and even forming a ball and rolling down hills — one of the few examples of wheel-like locomotion in the animal kingdom.

Pangolins can swim. Some say pangolins like to take a swim after a meal of ants to clean off parasites on their bodies. Female pangolins usually give birth to one offspring after a 120 day gestation period.

Pangolin Feeding Behavior

A Pangolin tongue is so long that one end of it is attached to animal’s pelvis. Ants and termites are collected with sticky mucus on the tongue and swallowed. Pangolins "chew" using the abrasive walls in their stomach and pebbles they have swallowed. Pangolins, numbats from Australia, aardvarks from Africa and ant eaters of Latin America all have long sticky tongue used for collecting ants. These species, all from different animal groups, developed their tongues independently.

Describing the mechanic of a feeding pangolin, David Attenborough wrote: “A pangolin in search of a meal opens a termite nest with a slash of the claws on its front legs, and pokes its curved snout inside. Angry termites will swarm out to defend their colony but the pangolin is little affected. It presses its horny scales firmly against one another, it keeps the lids of its eyes, which are particularly thick, tightly shut and it closes its nostrils with special muscles. It then protrudes a long black tongue which is liberally anointed with a sticky spittle that pours from an enormous salivary gland housed in its chest. This tongue snakes into the wrecked galleries of the ant’s nest, collects the insects and, flicking in and out, carries them back to its snout. There they are immediately swallowed and mashed up by the horny lining of the muscular stomach. The giant African pangolin can consume as many as 200,000 insects in a single night.

Pangolins have been observed turning over cow patties to get at the termites and breaking open patties and feeding on insects that fell on their stomachs.

Chinese Pangolin

Chinese Pangolins (Manis pentadactyla) have a body length of 40-50 centimeters and a tail length of 30 centimeters and weigh 1500-3000 grams. Their preferred habitats are forests, bush lands, and grass slopes in hills and mountains. They dig up ant mounds with their sharp fore claws and lick up ants and white ants with their thin and sticky tongue. They also eat bees and other insects. They can be found in the provinces in South China. They are regarded as threatened not endangered species.

Chinese pangolins are good at digging. Usually, their fore limbs dig and their hind limbs push the soft soil away. Since their bodies are covered with scales, they can dig without being bothered by biting ants. They have method for penetrating ant mounds which gives them their Chinese nick name — which translates to “means to penetrate the mountain”.

Chinese pangolins are usually solitary. They rests in their den during the daytime and seek food during the night. Their senses of hearing and their visual ability are poor but they have very good sense of smell. Their teeth are not pronounced. They have sands and stones in their stomach them digest their foods. Chinese pangolin can not only dig up caves, they can also swim and climb trees.

They mate in the spring and females give birth the next winter or spring. They produces one to three young pangolins each time. When young Chinese pangolins become larger, they ride on their mother's back to go out to seek food. When they are threatened Chinese pangolin curl up and hide their head beneath their abdomen. This defense method is quite effective in dealing with other animals. Chinese pangolin scales are valued in traditional Chinese medicine. Their meat is regarded as fresh and delicious.

Studying Pangolins

Jeremy Hance of wrote: “Despite their numerous oddities,, pangolins have not been widely studied by scientists. Nocturnal and notoriously shy, pangolins are rarely seen let alone meticulously observed by scientists. Scientists readily admit that the private lives of pangolins remain largely that: private. [Source: Jeremy Hance,, February 11, 2013 -]

"I was first drawn to pangolins in 2005 when I was about to head to South Africa to volunteer on a game reserve," says Dan Challender who is now working on a PhD focusing on the pangolin trade. "Flicking through a field guide to African mammals, they were about the craziest animals I could find in there, in terms of their appearance, morphology and generally how unusual they were and I hoped to see one in the bush." Challender never did see his pangolin in the wild in South Africa, but has since worked with pangolins throughout Asia and was a driving force in setting up the IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group. -

“Challender says when he first started looking into pangolins they "seemed almost forgotten if you will, compared to other arguably more charismatic species." This neglect has meant that researchers need to begin at square one when it comes to pangolin research. "We know very little about their role in the ecosystem," says Chris Shepherd, the Deputy Regional Director in Southeast Asia of TRAFFIC, an organization devoted to fighting illegal wildlife crime. "We do know they play an important role as a predator on ants and termites, but beyond that our knowledge is quite limited. More research is needed to better understand the role these species play, and the impact the mass removal of pangolins for commercial trade is having on the ecosystems around us." -

“But young researchers are jumping on the pangolin wagon. While Challender is working to understand the illicit pangolin trade, Ambika Khatiwada, an EDGE Fellow working with Nepal's National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), is kickstarting the first pangolin-focused camera trap project in Nepal. He and his team are setting up automated camera traps near pangolin dens, hoping to catch the shy animals on camera and learn something about their nocturnal wanderings. "The cameras will be placed 24 hours a day at least for 15 days at the same location. The opportunistic locations will be identified by their [pangolins signs] like burrows, footprints and scats," he says. Khatiwada will also be interviewing locals on their knowledge and perception of pangolins. "We hope that this research will be very helpful [in drafting a] pangolin conservation action plan for Nepal," he notes. Such action plans are needed across pangolin ranges in Asia, if the species aren't to wink out one-by-one. -

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2014

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