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What is a pangolin? © Getty Images

What is a pangolin?

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This cute, scaly, insect eating, clawed animal is the most illegally trafficked animal in the world.

If an anteater and a pinecone had children, this is what they’d look like. The pangolin is the only mammal to sport an armour of scales. These sharp, overlapping plates cover the animal’s entire body, apart from its snout and belly, and, when threatened, a pangolin will curl itself into a ball, helping to deter predators such as lions, tigers and hyenas.


Pangolins don’t have teeth. Instead, they feed on ants and termites using a sticky tongue which is rooted in the animal’s chest and can be up to 40cm long – sometimes longer than the pangolin itself! Pangolins also swallow small stones, which help to grind up the insects inside their stomach.

Their powerful front claws are great for breaking into termite mounds, but rubbish for walking. There are few sights more appealing than the hunched figure of a pangolin scurrying along on its back legs only, like a dinosaur. Google it, I urge you.

There are eight species of pangolin. Four live in Africa; four in Asia. All are threatened, and pangolins are now the most trafficked animal in the world. They are poached for their meat, and for their scales which some think have medicinal qualities. But their scales aren’t medicinal: they’re made from keratin, which is the same protein that makes up hair, claws and horns.

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Helen Pilcher
Helen PilcherScience writer, presenter and performer.

Helen Pilcher is a tea-drinking, biscuit-nibbling science and comedy writer, with a PhD in cell biology.


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