Pangolins: Six facts we didn’t know

By Jane Chu, Patrick Boehler, on September 21, 2019

We didn’t know that much about pangolins a few months ago. Then this project happened.

Here’s a humbling list of things we found out:

1. Its name is derived from the Malay word pengguling, meaning “something that rolls up”!

Due to the lack of scales on their face and underbelly, pangolins curl into a ball for protection. Their scales are dangerous weapons. When threatened, the pangolin performs a cutting motion with its scales to deter anything inserted between them. Only the fiercest predators, such as leopards, tigers and humans, are able to penetrate this level of protection.

2. The pangolin is an ant-eater with defence adaptations against ant attacks

Pangolins are insectivores and can consume up to 20,000 ants and termites a day. They are toothless and can’t chew. Instead, they make use of a long sticky tongue and curved claws to dig into the soil and retrieve their meal. They use their nostrils in their ant-searching missions and close them using strong muscles when eating to guard against ant attacks. Pangolins have an excellent sense of smell despite their poor eyesight.

Pangolins are excellent climbers too, and some species are known to live in trees. Footage: Sophia Zhang / China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation

3. Its tongue can be longer than its torso

When extended, the pangolin’s tongue can reach 40cm (14 inches)!

Unlike many mammals, its tongue is attached near its pelvis and the last pair of ribs — not in the mouth. When not in use, the tongue retracts deep inside a sheath in the animal’s chest cavity.

4. Pangolins keep a low, nocturnal profile

Pangolins are solitary and secretive creatures, venturing out primarily at night. Its Chinese name often misleads people into thinking pangolins are warriors with tough fighting capabilities: “穿山甲” means “one that infiltrates hills.” But they’re gentle creatures.

Pangolins are the most heavily trafficked mammals today, due to the demand for their scales and meat. Pictured is Randie, a pangolin rescued from a wildlife trader during the course of an investigation by the R.AGE team in Malaysia. Photo: Elroi Yee/R.AGE

5. Pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same material that’s in human hair and fingernails

Pangolin scales comprise approximately 20% of their total body weight. Even though the scales are made of the same substance as our fingernails, they are coveted for use in traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to supposedly treat swelling, and promote lactation and blood circulation.

Pangolin scales, like rhino horn, have no proven medicinal value. In August, the Chinese government announced that traditional medicines containing pangolin scales will no longer be covered by state insurance funds.

6. Pangolins are guardians of the forest

These scaly anteaters are tasked with pest control missions for their environs. They also keep soil mixed and aerated when they dig for food or create burrows, improving the nutrient quality of the soil and promoting decomposition cycles. Abandoned burrows make good homes for other animals.

The Pangolin Reports compromises of over 30 journalists from 14 newsrooms across Asia, Africa and Europe who have been investigating the illegal pangolin trade since early 2019. Our global report “Trafficked to Extinction”, will be released on Sept 25. Sign up here to receive some exclusive content before the launch.

Patrick Boehler

Co-founder and editorial board member of the Environmental Reporting Collective. Patrick is an executive editor and m…

Jane Chu

Jane Chu

Jane Chu oversees logistics planning and execution for the Collective. She is based in Hong Kong and supports the Wil…