Weird Critter Profile: Pangolin

05/15/2009

Pangolin What animal impersonates a pinecone, has no teeth and oozes smelly goo from glands in its anus? Why, a pangolin, of course!

All of a pangolin’s weird features are just adaptations to help these strange-looking mammals survive. Pangolins are covered in tannish-brown scales that make them look like giant, walking pinecones or a fantasy creature imagined up by Brian Froud! Those hard scales protect pangolins from predators and can actually be used as a weapon. Pangolins can roll their entire body up into a tight ball, protecting their soft, vulnerable bellies and heads. Through muscle action they can move their sharp-edged scales to slice wounds on predators trying to get between the scales.

Pangolins are insectivorous and primarily feed on ants and termites. They have enormous, mucous-covered tongues that help them capture their prey. Pangolin tongues are so long, in fact, that they actually sit in the chest cavity when the animal isn’t eating. Pangolins can completely close off their eyes, ears and nose to prevent bites from their insect prey.

There’s only one problem when it comes to eating for a pangolin: they don’t have teeth. Instead of chewing their food, they swallow sand and tiny stones, which are stored in the stomach. Then they simply slurp down dozens of their creepy-crawly prey whole, which then get ground up by the grit in their gut (how’s that for an alliterative digestive process?). While a mouthful of live bugs might make you gag, it’s a gourmet feast for a hungry pangolin.

Now, let’s talk about those anal glands. A pangolin's pungent anal secretions help them define their territory and might even deter predators. So while the ability to mark your turf and scare off enemies with stink from your butt is the dream of most 10 year old boys, it’s a little more practical for a pangolin.

Sadly, the eight species of pangolins are being over-hunted for the illegal wildlife trade and are rapidly losing habitat, making them some of the most endangered species in the world.  Find out how to help these bizarre yet lovable animals.


David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. His goal is to inspire others to appreciate the wonders of nature. Meet David >
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