|Tree pangolin, also known as African white-belllied pangolin. Credit: Tim Wacher / Zoological Society of London
This World Pangolin Day, we wanted to share with you five amazing things about pangolins you may not have known:
- Pangolins are the only mammals in the world that are covered in scales. The scales are made of keratin, which is the same material that fingernails, hair, rhino horn and bird talons are made of.
|Temminck's ground pangolin. Credit: Tikki Hywood Trust
- “Pangolin” comes from the Malay word “pengguling,” which literally means “roller,” or “something that rolls up.” The pangolin’s habit of rolling itself up into a ball and exposing only its hard scales (rather than its soft belly!) provides an excellent source of protection from predators, including lions, tigers and leopards. Unfortunately, rolling up is not enough to protect pangolins adequately against human predators, which represent their main threat. In fact, this behavior makes them more vulnerable than if they ran away or hid, because poachers can just pick them up.
- Pangolins are estimated to be the most heavily trafficked mammals in the world, with more than 1 million poached from the wild in the last decade alone. In fact, demand for pangolin meat and scales is so high that all eight species of pangolin – four in Asia and four in Africa – are currently at risk of extinction according to the IUCN Red List.
- Asian and African pangolins use their long and sticky tongues to collect insects – one pangolin may eat up to 70 million insects a year! Pangolins don’t have teeth. Instead, the insects they lap up with their long and sticky tongues are ground up by stones and keratinous spines inside their stomachs.
- Scientists have recently changed their minds about the closest relative of the pangolin. Pangolins were previously thought to be part of the Xenarthra family, which includes anteaters, sloths and armadillos. Newer evidence, however, suggests that pangolins are part of the Carnivora family, which includes hyenas, bears, and wolves.
The bottom line? Pangolins are fascinating creatures and we know much too little about them. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking action with partners around the world to save pangolins.
We’re also excited to share that we are working with a group of highly committed and enthusiastic conservationists to champion the conservation of pangolins in Central Africa: The MENTOR-POP (Progress on Pangolins) Fellowship program, a collaboration between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), is a trans-disciplinary team of early-career conservation practitioners from Africa and Asia that will be working over the next 15 months to address gaps in our knowledge in Central Africa about the status of pangolins, how to reduce demand for pangolin meat and scales, and - last but not least - how to strengthen legal systems and enforcement to ensure the long-term survival of our scaly friends.
We encourage you to follow the progress of the MENTOR-POP Fellows on Facebook and Twitter! Happy World Pangolin Day from all of us at USFWS, and best of luck to the MENTOR-POP Fellows as they gain the skills, knowledge and networks essential to become champions for pangolins.