See this cute, unusual little animal? It is a pangolin, also known as a scaly anteater. Some have described this animal as a walking pine cone, or an artichoke with a tail. During a recent trip to the San Diego Zoo, this little guy was featured in a Keeper Talk. We were fascinated, as pangolins are native to Palawan. We thought we would be meeting a homie. But no, this one, pictured above is actually from Africa. We learned there are eight species of pangolins, distributed in Africa and Asia. The species living on Palawan is called the Palawan or Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis). Imagine that. Culion is an island in the north of Palawan Province.
Which reminds me of a trip to the San Diego Zoo many years ago, when we spotted a parrot that looked exactly like the parrots on Palawan. We zoomed in closer to read the little plate with the bird’s name, and guess what it was called? “Palawan Parrot.” Well.
We knew we had a picture of a Palawan Pangolin somewhere in our old photo albums. And there it is, above! This picture was taken sometime in 1983 or 1984. One day, very early in our life among the Palawano people, one of the local hunters brought this little guy to our house. He offered to sell it to us. We declined, not knowing what we would possibly do with such a critter. Which may have been one of the worse decisions we ever made. What if we had kept it, and let it loose to live in our yard, or somewhere near by? Pangolins burrow into termite mounds and eat thousands and thousands, some say millions, of termites a year. We could have had a natural method of termite control. Instead, the hunter probably ended up eating the pangolin. We’re continually battling termites in our house. And we have not seen another Palawan Pangolin since then.
Pangolins have many unique characteristics:
- They can roll themselves into a ball when threatened. Their abdominal muscles are very strong, so they stay tightly curled up when a predator tries to unroll them.
- They are covered with scales made of keratin, the same material that makes up fingernails, hair and horn. Their scales make up 20% of their body weight.
- Despite the scales, they are mammals, with fur on their underbelly and throats.
- They are nocturnal and have very weak eyes. Their eyes are small, and their eyelids are tough, so when they are burrowing in a termite mound and getting bit over and over from the insects, they can close their eyes and be protected. Amazing!
- They can close their nostrils and ears to keep insects out.
- They have a very keen sense of smell, and can smell insects underground.
- Their front legs are strong and have long claws. They are designed to be digging machines.
- When they tunnel underground, they clear out the sides and roofs of passages by pushing up and from side to side with their tough scaly bodies.
- Most species, including the Philippine pangolin, have prehensile tails.
- They have no teeth, but consume their prey whole.
- Their stomachs contain small rocks and pebbles to help digest the insects they consume – much like the gizzard of a chicken.
- Their tongues are very long, sticky and muscular. They are attached near their pelvic area and last pair or ribs, not their mouth!
(Alert: here is where I start my little soapbox rant. I just have an easier time believing in an Intelligent Designer, a Creator God, when it comes to ‘adaptations’ like the pangolins’ tongue. I mean, how would something like that evolve? Over thousands and millions of years, the tongues that crept back from the mouth and down the throat and through the stomach and ended up attaching themselves to the pelvic area, those are the animals that survived and thrived? The ones with creeping tongues? I just don’t believe it. By the way, two other animals have that same characteristic – the giant anteater and the tube-lipped nectar bat.)
OK, did I lose you there? No? Whew. Thanks for hanging with me. But now be warned, this next part is where I expose my inner Language Nerd.
My Philippine readers and I would pronounce pangolin like this: pong′-oh-leen. But the keeper at the San Diego Zoo pronounced it like this: pang′-guh-lynn. So we wondered what was correct? And why would an African animal have a Philippine-looking name?
So here is what we learned. The dictionary says:
pangolin |ˈpa ng gəlin; pa ng ˈgōlin|
ORIGIN late 18th cent.: from Malay peng-guling, literally ‘roller’ (from its habit of rolling into a ball)
Oh! That makes sense! The original Malaysian word has ‘g’ twice. Malaysian and Philippine languages are from the same language family. For a Philippine language to be pronounced with the hard ‘g’ in the middle, it would have to spelled panggolin. The Palawano word is for this cute little animal is similar to the Malaysian, tenggeling, as southern Palawan is really closely tied to Malaysia.
Now, why does the African animal have a Malaysian name? We can only guess that the species was first ‘discovered’ and written about by settlers in Asia, then later the African animal counterpoint was ‘discovered.’
OK, enough of the language nerd stuff. The next two pictures are ones I took at the San Diego Zoo, so they are of an African pangolin, one of the smallest species. The poor little guy is trying to protect his eyes, as it was bright out that day and being a nocturnal creature, he’s not used to sunshine.
In the picture below, you can see how agile the pangolin’s tail is.
The drawing below is dated 1779! An Indian pangolin.
By the way, it is an interesting story how the San Diego Zoo became custodians of the pangolin in these pictures. Apparently, seven years ago or so, officials caught wind of a shipment of pangolins from Africa for the illegal pet trade. The authorities were not able to stop the shipment before it left Africa, but did confiscate the animals upon arrival in the U.S. The animals had not had food or water during the course of their trip. Of 14 pangolins that left Africa, 9 died. Only five made it alive to the U.S. The zoo took the five remaining ones, and shortly three more died. The two remaining ones needed a lot of care. They had internal organ damage from the lack of food and water. Their digestive systems had shut down. The zoo keepers went through a long process of feeding them via tubes until their internal organs could function again. One lived a few years, and the one we met was perhaps seven years old. Pangolins do NOT make good pets. They are solitary and nocturnal. They only eat ants and termites. How foolish to try to import one for a pet!
But the illegal pet trade is not the pangolin’s greatest danger. There is also an illegal trade in their meat. Most pangolins in international trade end up in China and Vietnam. The meat of the animals is considered a delicacy, and also believed to have health benefits such as nourishing the kidneys. Pangolin scales are used as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicines, though there is no evidence that they are effective.
As a result, the pangolin population is in decline, and several species are endangered. The Palawan species is considered nearly threatened.
I was excited to find Pangorarium’s photo comparing all 8 species of pangolin. The Palawan pangolin is number 4, and the little guy at the San Diego Zoo is number 8. So you can see those two species are close in size, the smallest ones. I was amazed to learn how big some pangolins are!
(If you are interested, #1 Cape Pangolin or Temminck’s Ground Pangolin, #2 Chinese Pangolin, #3 Sunda Pangolin or Malayan Pangolin, #4 Philippine Pangolin, #5 Giant Ground Pangolin, #6 Indian or Thick-tailed Pangolin, #7 Tree Pangolin or African White-bellied Pangolin, #8 Long-tailed or Black-bellied Pangolin.)
In the course of researching about this fascinating animal, I learned that February 16, 2013 is World Pangolin Day! Who knew? Therefore, the perfect day to publish this little blog about these amazing creatures.
Check out Save Pangolins.org http://savepangolins.org/
Consider ‘liking’ the World Pangolin Day page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WorldPangolinDay
or Pangorarium on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Pangorarium?group_id=0