Pangolins: Real life Pokémon

Pangolin Species

The pangolin is thought to be one of the most trafficked animals on the black market, and makes up about 20% of all wildlife trafficked. The pangolin is often referred to as the scaly anteater and makes a striking resemblance to the Sandslash Pokémon with its scaly back and soft belly. There are eight extant species of pangolin in three geniuses. The Indian (Manis crassicaudata), the Philippine (Manis culionesis), the Sunda (Manis javanica) and the Chinese (Manis pentadactyla) in Asia and the black bellied (Phataginus tetradactyla), the white bellied (Phataginus tricuspis), the giant ground (Smutsia gigantea) and the Temminck’s ground (Smutsia gigantea) in Africa. Pangolins are captured and sold for various reasons including meat, medicine and fashion. All eight species are protected but two are also considered vulnerable to critically endangered, depending on the species, but regulations are inadequately controlled and pangolins remain heavily trafficked.

Pangolins are relatively successful living in a variety of environments although don’t do well in extreme conditions. There are two main types of pangolins, arboreal or burrowing. Pangolins typically have short, powerful limbs with five toes and claws. They also have a tail they can use for balance while climbing. To aid in burrowing, pangolins have thick eyelids and nostrils they can close as well as reduced or absent ears to protect themselves from dirt. Pangolins are often called scaly anteaters because their diet consists of ants and termites, up to 70 million a year. They have long tongues, up to 40 cm, that can be longer than their body. Their tongues have incredibly sticky salvia to pick up their food with. Pangolins don’t have teeth to chew their food with so they actually have spines in their stomach for mechanical digestion.

Pangolin Tongue

Possibly the pangolin’s most famous adaptions are those protective scales. Pangolins are the only mammal to have scales and their scales are much different than the scales of reptiles and fish and protrude from their skin much like a porcupine quill. Their scales are flat and compact keratinocytes surrounded by a protective cuticle layer. The scales can be 10-30 mm wide and 20-40 mm long. Pangolins have two types of scales, trunk scales and tail edge scales. Trunk scales make up the majority of the scales on a pangolin and are relatively straight and elongated. Tail edge scales have a 70-90̊ angle to increase protection. Tree pangolins also have different scales than ground pangolins. Tree pangolins have scales that are longer than they are wide and overlap much more than burrowing pangolins (below right). These specialized scales are because tree pangolins have a higher range of motion so the scale orientation helps protect them from more angles. Burrowing pangolins (below left), however, have short and wide scales that are shaped like trapezoid shaped.


While pangolins are so widely trafficked and humans have been encounter pangolins for centuries, there is still a lot about pangolins that’s unknown. It is still unknown how long pangolin’s live as they aren’t easy to keep in captivity. There is a 50% mortality rate of pangolins in zoos often because of stress, parasites and diseases. The average pangolin only survives four and half years in captivity, although the longest was kept 19 years in a zoo. On top of that pangolin origins are also unconfirmed, it was previously believed that they were close relatives of anteaters but new evidence is suggesting that they are more closely related to carnivores like the lions that prey upon them. To help pangolins you can sign this petition in support of adding protection for the remaining seven species of pangolins under the Endangered Species Act.



Pangolins: 13 facts about the world’s most hunted animal. (2015, Jan 31).

Telegraph.Co.Uk Retrieved from

Wang, B. (2016). Structural and functional design strategies of biological keratinous materials (Order No. 10123601). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1806780314). Retrieved from

“Pangolin.” Animals of the Masai Mara. pag. 7 Dec. 2016.

“Pangolin.” WWF. World Wildlife Fund. 7 Dec. 2016.


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