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What is a Pangolin?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 December 2014
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The pangolin is an unusual animal that lives in the tropical rainforests of Africa and Asia. Shaped like an armored anteater, to which they are not closely related, pangolins are also sometimes called scaly anteaters. Pangolins are the only mammals to have keratin scales as protection. Keratin is the same material that makes up claws and fingernails. On baby pangolins, the scales are soft, but they harden by adulthood. An adult pangolin can use both its claws and sharp scales on its tail as weapons to slash at attackers.

Like some other animals seeking to avoid predation, pangolins are exclusively nocturnal. They use their excellent sense of smell to locate anthills and termite mounds in the darkness. They then use their sharp claws to burrow deep into these mounds, where they shove their long, sticky tongues in to snatch up hundreds or thousands of the insects. This is their sole source of food. Intelligent animals, pangolins often use their cleverness to get at obscure sources of food.

The pangolin gets its name from a Malay word pengguling, which means "something that rolls up." Like a roly poly bug, pangolins roll into a ball when in danger, and spend the day sleeping in this position. The pangolin is also a good climber, which helps lower its chances of being eaten by large predators on the ground, such as tigers. It also digs burrows within termite mounds that it has previously evacuated, where it can also raise young.

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There are eight species of pangolin alive today. Four species are found in Asia, including the Indian Pangolin, the Sunda Pangolin, the Philippine Pangolin, and the Chinese Pangolin; and four species are found in Africa, the Long-tailed Pangolin, Ground Pangolin, Tree Pangolin, and Giant Pangolin. In many areas across their range, pangolins are at risk because they are often killed for "medicinal" purposes. In 2007, Thai customs officers announced that they had intercepted a shipment of 100 pangolins, which were being smuggled out of Thailand and into China for cooking.

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