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Cool Critter: Pangolin

October 31, 2009

If it’s not a pinecone…or an artichoke…


…or a komodo dragon…or an anteater…


…then it must be a pangolin!


Disclaimer: Unlike our other Cool Critters, pangolins don’t DO anything especially cool. They do exist, though, and the mere existence of an animal that looks like the love child of an artichoke and an anteater is pretty freaking cool.

Pangolins are long-tongued, long-clawed, toothless, scaly, noxious fume-releasing mammals. In short, they’re weird-ass critters.

Pangolins do their pangolin thing (a.k.a. eat and hide) in the tropical regions of Africa and Asia. There, they scour the ground for anthills and termite mounds and use their long front claws* to tear open the nests. Once the ants are exposed, the pangolin closes its eyes, ears and nostrils (to keep the ants out, of course) and uses its wicked long tongue to collect the little buggers. That “wicked long tongue” attaches to the animal’s pelvis and, when the pangolin sticks it out, is between 10 and 16 inches long**. It (the “wicked long tongue”) is also covered in gobs of sticky saliva that the pangolin uses to pick up small stones, sand and live ants. The pangolin swallows everything as is—remember, it’s toothless—and sends the mess of bugs and grit to its stomach where the grit grinds up the bugs.

As cool as the pangolin’s “wicked long tongue” is, the animal’s real claim to fame is its ability to roll up. In fact, the name pangolin comes from the Malay word “pengguling” which has a few possible meanings. We like “something that rolls up” best. Anyway, when a pangolin feels threatened, it takes advantage of the sharp keratin scales that cover everything but its face by tucking its face under its tail and rolling up. Any predator would surely think it had come across an artichoke, or at the very least an animal that totally wasn’t worth the effort.

Alas, there’s one predator that isn’t deterred by a rolled up pangolin—or by the putrid acid a startled pangolin emits from its anal glands—and that predator, of course, is us. There are eight species of pangolin and all of them are declining. Pangolins are plagued by the usual problems like deforestation and poaching, but the main threat to these funny-looking animals is the growth in illegal pangolin trafficking. The growth in trafficking follows a growth in demand from China where pangolin meat is considered a delicacy and pangolin scales are believed to cure all sorts of ailments. A recent bust found 5 tons of pangolin meat, which officials estimated came from 1,481 pangolins. That’s a lot for a species that only gives birth to one young at a time.

*Because their front claws are so long, they often walk on four legs with their forepaws curled under or on their hind legs, using their tails for balance.

**Pangolins range in size from 12 to 39 inches.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2009 11:38 pm


    I’ve actually been talking a bit about this fellow during the Darwin-themed giuded visits I give at the zoology museum here!

  2. December 1, 2009 2:44 pm

    well, not much of a playmate, but a very cool critter!

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