White-bellied pangolin, Three-cusped pangolin
Sometimes called a Scaly anteater, but not related to the anteater, the pangolin is a mammal in its own family, with a unique appearance: like an artichoke that has a long tail, a pinecone on legs or an anteater from another planet. It has a skinny nose and a scaled tail, with its overlapping body scales made of keratin, that feel a little like our fingernails. These scales are thin and light, have sharp edges, and their bottom edges are attached to the thick skin of the pangolin. These scales cover all of the pangolin's body, except its belly, snout, ears and eyes. They are dark brown, dark olive-brown, yellowish brown or pale olive. The face and belly have soft, pale hairs. Pangolins have no teeth, the same as other animals that eat ants and termites. The lifespan of the Tree pangolin is unknown. One animal in captivity is 13 years old.
The Tree pangolin lives in West Africa in Guinea and Sierra Leone, in Kenya and Tanzania, and south to Angola and Zambia, in lowland tropical moist forest and forest-savanna mosaics. In areas where they are not hunted, they may also occur in cultivated and fallow land.
Habits and lifestyle
Tree pangolins are predominantly nocturnal and solitary animals, and during the daytime they shelter in tree hollows, curled up with epiphytes (plants that climb up another plant, usually a tree) or in a forked branch. At night, it goes out to search for food. Sometimes it climbs down to the ground. There it will walk on all fours or move about just using its hind legs. It is slow moving and when it walks on its hind legs, it uses its tail as a brace. It is a capable swimmer and climber, and can run fast when necessary. For protection it curls into a tight ball, which is almost impossible for a person to unroll. Its scales act like armor, and its legs and its tail wrap around and protect its soft underparts. It is able to roll away from danger, if needed.
Diet and nutrition
Tree pangolins are insectivores, specializing in termites and ants, and they also eat soft bodied invertebrates.
Little is known about the mating system of Tree pangolins due to their elusive and nocturnal behavior. A female’s territory is small and solitary, smaller than 10 acres (40,000 m2), and rarely overlapping. Males have a bigger territory, as much as 60 acres (200,000 m2), overlapping with many female territories, which results in male/female meetings. These meetings are brief, lasting only when mating occurs, which may mean that tree pangolins are polygynous. They can mate at any time during the year. Gestation lasts 150 days, and usually a single baby is born. Young pangolins are carried on their mother's tail until being weaned after three months. They will stay with their mother until five months old.
Although currently not considered to be under threat of extinction, the Tree pangolin is affected by population decline due to hunting. It is hunted for its meat, and for the scales, used in traditional medicine. In certain parts of its range it is hunted at unsustainable levels, and is the most common by far of all the pangolin species found in African bushmeat markets.
The Tree pangolin is the most common of the African forest pangolins, but no population estimate is available. Currently this species is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today continue to decrease.
Tree pangolins eat a huge number of insects, including termites and ants, controlling their populations. They are also prey for many felids.
Fun facts for kids
- A Tree pangolin has heavy eyelids, which protect its eyes from the biting of ants and termites. For the same reason, their ear opening and nostrils can be closed by means of special muscles when they are feeding.
- When a mother pangolin feels threatened, she will roll up around her baby, which will also roll into a ball. Pangolins do not fight with their sharp claws, but they can spray a foul smelling liquid, just as a skunk does.
- Pangolins can often be seen standing on their hind legs and sniffing the air, locating their insect food with their sharp sense of smell.
- When walking on the ground or along branches, a Tree pangolin curls up its claws and walks on its knuckles, shuffling along.
- The newborn baby’s scales at first are soft, then they begin to harden after a few days.
- “Pangolin” comes from the Malay “pengguling", which means "something that rolls up".
- A baby pangolin is known as a pangopup. It likes sleeping on its mother’s tail.
- “Tricuspis,” the species name for the tree pangolin, is a Latin word for “three points” referring to the shape of the animal’s scales.