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Weird and Wonderful Creatures: The Pangolin

The pangolin | David Blygott via Flickr

Pangolins (order Manis) are a group of species of mammal found in tropical Asia and Africa. They're instantly recognizable by their spiky scales, unusually long tongues, and ability to spray like skunks. Unfortunately, they are critically endangered due to illegal hunting and trading of their body parts.

Pangolins are insectivores, destroying anthills and termite mounds to find their meals. A pangolin's tongue can be longer than the length of its body, which helps it probe insect tunnels for food. Their sticky saliva aids in retrieving prey from the ground. Pangolins are nocturnal and have poor vision, so they rely on their excellent sense of smell to seek out food.

Perhaps their most distinctive feature is their scales that cover their whole body: pangolins are the only mammals that have this feature. Their scales are made of keratin, the same protein compound that comprises human fingernails. The scales are spiky and serve as a defense mechanism when a pangolin curls up into a ball, similar to a hedgehog. Unfortunately, pangolins are hunted for their scales and meat, which in some cultures are believed to have medicinal qualities.

To protect the pangolin's future, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has designated all eight living species of pangolin as "critically endangered." Efforts to curb habitat destruction and end trafficking of pangolin scales and bushmeat should help this species rebound.

To learn more about biodiversity and endangered species, take a look at our Endangered Species 1: Why Are Species Endangered?Endangered Species 2: Working to Save Endangered Species, and Introducing Biodiversity lessons.