21 February 2015

Happy World Pangolin Day!

It's 21 February 2015 and you know what that means: World Pangolin Day!

And I bet you thought I was joking when I mentioned more than one natural history-themed date in February...

Chinese pangolin Manis pentadactyla at the Leipzig Zoo. 
[image in the public domain]

Pangolins, also known as 'scaly anteaters,' are a group of unusual mammals of forest and grassland habitats in tropical Africa and tropical and subtropical Asia belonging to the order Pholidota; all extant pangolins are members of the family Manidae and of the genus Manis. Manis is divided into several subgenera. The subgenera, and the extant species they contain, are:

Subgenus Manis
 - Indian pangolin Manis (Manis) crassicaudata
 - Chinese pangolin Manis (Manis) pentadactyla

Subgenus Paramanis
 - Philippine pangolin Manis (Paramanis) culionensis
 - Sunda pangolin Manis (Paramanis) javanica

Subgenus Phataginus
 - tree pangolin Manis (Phataginus) tricuspis

Subgenus Smutsia
 - giant pangolin Manis (Smutsia) gigantea
 - ground pangolin Manis (Smutsia) temmincki

Subgenus Uromanis
 - long-tailed pangolin Manis (Uromanis) tetradactyla

Indian pangolin Manis crassicaudata in Sri Lanka.
[photo by Dushy Ranetunge, licenced under
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.]
Pangolins' most striking feature are their scales, which are composed of keratin, the same material as hair and fingernails. These tough scales provide pangolins with protection from predators; when threatened, pangolins quickly curl into a ball, protecting their soft, unarmoured undersides.

Ground pangolin Manis temminckii curled into an impenetrable, scaly ball.
[image in the public domain]
Pangolins have no teeth, but instead have a protrusible tongue that is long (extendible to 16 centimetres in large species, though the tongue's entire length is actually greater than the length of the whole pangolin, and is anchored between the ribcage and the pelvis) and sticky, which they use to eat termites and ants. They use the stout claws on their short limbs to excavate the nests of these insects, as well as, in some species such as Chinese pangolins M. pentadactyla, to dig burrows for themselves. While many pangolin species are terrestrial, tree pangolins M. tricuspis are, as the name suggests, arboreal, and most Asian species seem to be fairly comfortable both in the trees and on the ground.

Pangolins range in size from long-tailed pangolins M. tetradactyla (90-110 centimetres total length, 2-2.5 kilograms) to giant pangolins M. gigantea (180 centimetres total length, 33 kilograms). Like many mammals, males tend to outweigh females, generally by 10-50 per cent, but some Indian pangolin M. crassicaudata males may weigh as much as 90 per cent more than females. These animals are primarily solitary, rarely meeting other than to mate. Females deliver one baby in the African species, and one to three in the Asian species; the little pangolin is born with soft scales which harden after a few days. Once their scales have hardened, baby pangolins often move about by holding onto their mothers' tails.

So why World Pangolin Day? The day was organised to raise awareness of the plight of these strange mammals, which are severely threatened by human action, primarily illegal trafficking and trade for their hides, scales, and meat. All pangolin species are threatened, but the ones that have it worst are Chinese pangolins and Sunda pangolins M. javanica, both of which are classified as 'critically endangered' by the IUCN. For more about World Pangolin Day and pangolin conservation, go here.

-- M

 - Save Pangolins, http://savepangolins.org/
 - Project Pangolin, http://pangolins.org/world-pangolin-day/
 - ARKive, http://www.arkive.org/giant-ground-pangolin/smutsia-gigantea/

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