Saturday, January 29, 2011

Weekend Wonders: Pangolin (Manis spp.)

When I was an undergraduate biology major, I took an introductory Mammology class and found out that there are a number of fascinating mammals few people even know exist.  One of my favorites is the pangolin (Manis spp.).  This odd-looking creature is found in parts of tropical Africa and Asia.  It is the only mammal covered in large, sharp-edged, protective keratin scales.  When threatened or sleeping, the pangolin curls into a tight ball, a highly effective predator deterrent.  Pangolins have no teeth and cannot chew.  Instead, they have a long, sticky tongue for scooping up ants and termites, which they find with their acute sense of smell.  Pangolin claws, used for tearing open ant and termite mounds, are so long and sharp that pangolins must walk with their front feet turned under, effectively walking on their wrists!  They can also emit a noxious-smelling substance, much like a skunk.  Some species are arboreal, while others are fossorial ground-dwellers.

Although pangolins look like a cross between an armadillo and an anteater, they are not related to either.  In fact, their closest living relatives are the carnivores.  Not surprisingly, the biggest threat to the pangolin is man.  Pangolins are considered a delicacy in some cultures, and are also used for medicinal purposes.  Illegal hunting and deforestation are taking a toll on Asian pangolin populations in particular.  These unique animals help to control insect pest populations, and to lose them would be a detriment to their environment.  Hopefully something can be done to prevent this from happening.

Periodically I will post more information about interesting mammal species in future Weekend Wonders comments.  It is time for everyone to learn about the existence of these fellow dwellers on our planet before they disappear forever!

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