10 Fascinating Facts About Pangolins

Jupiterimages/Photos.com via Getty Images Plus
Jupiterimages/Photos.com via Getty Images Plus / Jupiterimages/Photos.com via Getty Images Plus

The pangolin looks like a cross between an iguana, an anteater, and a roly-poly. What's the deal with this armored, burrowing creature? Here are 10 facts you might not know about pangolins.

1. Pangolins walk like dinosaurs.

Pangolin paws are great for digging, but not so efficient for walking. As a result, African ground pangolins walk like dinosaurs. When they need to move faster than a waddle, they balance on their hind legs, using their heavy tails for balance to thunder across the ground like a T. rex.

2. Pangolins are mammals.

Pangolins are the only known mammal in the world entirely covered with scales.

3. Pangolins aren’t anteaters.

Pangolins are often called scaly anteaters, and that’s what they look like. But despite their love of ants, they come from a different genus than anteaters, and scientists are still debating how the two might be related.

4. Pangolins’ tongues are longer than their bodies.

The pangolin’s tongue connects at its pelvis. When fully extended, it can be more than a foot long.

5. Pangolins have no teeth.

Pangolins snag ants and termites with their sticky tongues and swallow them whole. They also swallow small pebbles and sand to help them digest insects without chewing.

6. Scales make up 20 percent of the pangolin’s body weight.

Pangolin scales are made up of keratin, a protein that's also in your fingernails and rhinoceros horns.

7. Pangolins love to roll around in the mud.

Look how excited this pangolin is to hang out in a mud puddle!

8. Pangolins use their tails when they’re in danger.

When a pangolin spots a predator, it curls up in a tight armored ball. If that fails, it thrashes its tail around—the sharp scales can slice through skin. The animals can also emit a stinky spray from their anal glands.

9. Pangolins are endangered.

Pangolins are native to Africa and Asia, and all eight species are protected. Three—the Sunda pangolin, the Philippine pangolin, and the Chinese pangolin—are considered critically endangered.

10. Pangolins are one of the most highly trafficked animals in the world.

Traditional Chinese medicine holds that pangolin scales can help cure ailments ranging from goiter to acne, and its meat is considered a delicacy in some countries—so there’s a thriving black market for the rare creature. According to conservative estimates, at least 10,000 pangolins are illegally trafficked each year.

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.