When the renowned naturalist sir David Attenborough was invite to choose which ten threatened pets he would conserve from extinction, one that he inserted on his list was the secret pangolin, the just mammal top top the earth with scales. “It’s one of the many endearing animals I have ever before met. Vast numbers that them are illegally exported, greatly to China,” claimed Attenborough. He discovered it ~ rescuing one native a food preparation pot in Asia throughout the filming that a documentary. Right here we evaluation what makes this animal so different and so coveted.

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A large ground pangolin. Credit: David Brossard.

What makes the pangolin therefore special?

The fact is that practically everything around this pet is special, from its distinctive appearance—which has actually earned it explanation such together an “anteater through scales” or an “artichoke through legs”—to that is comical and humanoid ability to stand on its two hind legs and, with the support listed by its an effective prehensile tail, wobble forward. This renders it one of the couple of mammals—along with humans and some primates and kangaroos—that exercise bipedalism.

The pangolin is likewise the only mammal through scales—similar to those of fish and reptiles, while the shell of the armadillo is bony in nature. This scales type an armour the covers the optimal of the head, all the ago and tail, yet not the face, throat, belly and the inside of the legs. That serves as protection against its predators: once feeling threatened it rolls itself up and also becomes an armoured ball.

What walk it feeding on?

The head that the pangolin is tiny compared to the body, and elongated. It has a tubular snout and also a toothless mouth, with a narrow, muscular and sticky tongue—lubricated by large salivary glands—which the inserts right into anthills and termite piles to feeding on 10s of hundreds of these insects daily, digesting them with the help of small pebbles the accumulate in that stomach.

Pangolin has a tubular snout and also a toothless mouth, v a narrow, muscular and sticky tongue. Source: US Fish & Wildlife Service

Its tongue is as long as the entirety body and also is attached at its basic to a pelvic bone. As soon as not being offered it remains wrapped in a type of bag or bag inside the throat, which greatly limits its capacity to vocalize. In fact, pangolins communicate with each various other by chemical signals the secrete with special glands, taking advantage of an extraordinary feeling of smell, which renders up for its poor vision and hearing.

Are they regarded armadillos and also anteaters?

Although for a time the pangolins to be grouped along with armadillos and also anteaters in the Edentata superorder, it is now taken into consideration that the similarities and also parallelisms between one and the other are the result of a procedure of convergent evolution.

In fact, pangolins are so distinct that an order has been defined, Pholidota, composed only of the eight recognized pangolin species: four Asian and four African, including the large pangolin. These varieties differ, in enhancement to their place of origin, by your size and by their means of life—either arboreal or terrestrial: the smallest varieties (arboreal) barely reach 2 kg, if the huge pangolin (terrestrial) deserve to exceed 30 kg.

Why are pangolins quiet a mystery?

It’s since there are still many aspects of their nature and behaviour that are unknown: exactly how they pair and mate, how long gestation lasts, how long castle live in the wild or if your behaviour is more or less territorial.

When feeling endangered pangolin rolls chin up and becomes one armoured ball. Credit: Esther Simpson

This is due to the fact that they are very shy animals, lonely and also nocturnal; once they are required to live together or space torn from your environment and also moved they come to be greatly stressed, construct ulcers, avoid feeding, end up being aggressive and end up dying. And also the worst thing is that, at their current rate of loss the pangolin will certainly eventually come to be extinct without numerous of these inquiries being answered.

Why have they come to be such widespread victims of pet trafficking?

This is due to the growing and massive demand for these animals from Asia, especially from China and also Vietnam, where large sums are paid for your meat and scales. Behind this increasing need is the economic growth in both countries, in which eat pangolin is a demonstration of wealth. Thus, affluent businessmen go to to exclude, restaurants in the firm of friends and also colleagues and also order a live specimen, i beg your pardon is presented at the table prior to being sacrificed prior to the diners. This provides it clear the their businesses space booming and also that they have the right to afford to splurge. Lock pay as much as $1,000 because that a live pangolin and also $300 per kilo for the meat.

A large number of the pangolins caught in Asia walk to restaurants, i m sorry in turn has actually caused demand to move to Africa—the various other continent where there room pangolins—which has come to be the 2nd largest market and supplier of these animals. However, as result of the too much sensitivity and stress that they suffer and which stays clear of them from making it through the distribution to Asia, african pangolins are mainly used because that meat markets and also for the it is provided of scales to traditional medicine establishments, wherein they reach $3,000 per kilo.

A large number that the pangolins recorded in Asia go to restaurants and also traditional eastern medicines. Credit: Dan Bennett

What is special around pangolin plates or scales?

The different traditional eastern medications attribute all kinds the virtues and healing powers to them. For example, the official treatise of timeless Vietnamese medicine recommends them as invigorating, to boost blood circulation, healing ulcers and promote the secretion of breast milk, and additionally to treat acne and scrofula. Other classic medicines prescribe them as a cure for arthritis and even cancer.

However, the fact is the pangolin scale are just plates or store of very keratinized cells. In other words, lock are full of keratin protein, just like rhinoceros horns… and human nails. As conservationist Maria Diekmann put it, “if they have actually power to cure cancer then therefore does biting your fingernails“. But, “that’s the cultural belief and it’s therefore old and also so deeply ingrained it’s really hard come shift.”

What steps are being taken to curb this situation?

So far, the 182 nations that have signed the Convention on global Trade in threatened Species (CITES) have reached an agreement for the total ban on profession in pangolins.

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In addition, and also led by Attenborough himself, a media campaign has been introduced to raise public awareness and save the pangolin.