Although sometimes mistaken for a reptile, the scale covered pangolin is actually a mammal.
It is the only mammal wholly covered by sharp, overlapping plates or scales which they use to protect themselves from predators in the wild such as lions, tigers, or hyenas. If under threat, a pangolin will immediately curl into a tight ball only showing rows of scales. It will then utilize its sharp-scaled tail to defend itself when molested.
The scales are very hard, and make up about 20 percent of their total body weight. The scales are made of the protein keratin, which is the same protein substance that makes up human hair and nails.
There are four species of pangolins found on the continent of Africa and four species found on the Asian continent. At the present time, they are decreasing in numbers and are very vulnerable to extinction.
Depending on the species, they range in size from 12 to 60 inches in length and weigh from 3.5 to 73 pounds. They are solitary, primarily nocturnal animals, that are seldom found very far away from a source of water. They feed on ants, termites and various larvae. They do not have teeth, but pick up food with their sticky tongues which can sometimes reach lengths greater than the animal's body. The tongue is rooted in the chest of the animal.
Pangolins are known to swallow small stones which can be used to help grind up the insects inside their stomach. They possess extremely powerful front claws that are used to break into insect nests and mounds. These special claws are excellent for digging, but not very good for walking which gives them a very funny appearance when moving over the ground.
Unfortunately for the pangolin, they are currently one of the most trafficked mammals in Asia and increasingly in Africa. They are in high demand in countries such as China and Vietnam. Their meat is considered a delicacy, and their scales are used in traditional medicines and folk remedies to treat a range of ailments from asthma to rheumatism and arthritis. All eight pangolin species are protected under national and international laws. However, because of their value in the market place, there is still a growing international illegal trade in pangolins.
Larrie Stone is a retired Dana College science professor.