An Article by Mohan Pai
Pic by: Pankaj Sharma
The Scaly ant-eater.
The pangolin or scaly ant eaters are curious animals. Unlike other mammals the pangolin is characterised by the presence of large overlapping scales on the body which act like protective armour. These scales are considered as modifications of the hair or spines flattened into scales. The underside of the body has some coarse bristle-like hair which can be seen in-between the scales. Pangolins are nocturnal in habits, spending the day in their burrows, which are long tunnels ending into a large chamber. Burrows may be fairly deep (6 m) in loose soil. The entrance of the burrow is closed with earth when animal is inside. It walks slowly with the back well arched and sometimes stands up on its hind feet with the body inclined forward.
The food of pangolins consists of various kind of ants and termites. The termite mound is torn open by the powerful claws and the pangolin thrusts its long tongue, lubricated with saliva into the passages and withdraws it with white ants adhering to it.
Pangolins have no teeth. They are particularly attracted by the leaf nests of the big red ants. Pangolins can climb walls, they climb trees in search of tree ants. Pangolins roll into a ball for defence and exhibit enormous muscular power that defies any ordinary attempt to unroll them. Probably stronger carnivore can prey upon them. Habitat destruction and killing for so called medicinal purposes have considerably reduced the population of the pangolin.
The name Pangolin is derived from Malayan phrase ‘Pen Gulling’ meaning ‘rolling ball’, while the term Pholidota came from a Greek word meaning ‘scaled animals’. They are also known as Scaly Anteaters because of their food habits.
Elongated tapering body, covered with large overlapping scales, except on snout, chin, sides of face, throat, belly and inner surface of limbs. Scales may be regarded as hair or rather as spines enormously enlarged and flattened. The movable scales with sharp posterior edges attached at the base to the thick skin from which they grow. The shape and topography of scales change with wear and tear. Colour varies from different shades of brown to yellow. White, brown or even black bristle like hair covering the scale less areas. Eyes small, with thick heavy eyelids. Limbs with five clawed digits, hind leg Longer and stouter than fore leg. Tail thick and tapering, tongue long, upto 25 cm. Skull oblong or conical, without teeth. Female with two mammae in the thoracic region.
Indian Pangolin occurs sporadically throughout the plains and lower slopes of hills from south of the Himalaya to Kannyakumari, excepting the north-eastern region. It also occurs in Pakistan.SriLanka andprobably in Bangladesh. Indian Pangolin occupies different types of tropical forests, mainly moist, dry deciduous, wet to semi-evergreen, thorn as well as grassland. It is also recorded from degraded wasteland near human habitation. Chinese Pangolin mainly inhabits subtropical broad-leaved forests and tropical wet, semi-evergreen and moist forests. Both the species are nocturnal. During the day, pangolins are found curled in burrows with many sealed outlets of loose earth. Burrows are usually made under large boulders or rocks. The depth of the burrow varies, depending on the soil type, 1.5-1.8 m in rocky soil and 6 m or more in loose soil. Though terrestrial in habit, they are excellent climbers, using ‘caterpillar locomotion’, with the firm grip of forefeet on the tree. The tail provides auxiliary support. The pangolins are highly specialized in their feeding habits. They feed mainly on eggs, young ones and adults of termites and ants by digging the termite or ant nests. Before digging the termite or ant nests, they utilize their sense organs, smell rapidlyaround the area to select the most suitable spot to start with and feed rapidly by extending protrusible, long, thin, copiously lubricated tongue into the galleries of nests. Eggs are relished more than the adults. Pangolins are particularly attracted by the leaf nests of large red ants, which hold the swarms of adults and their eggs. A close correlation exists between the range of distribution of M. pentadactyla and the abundance of termite species, Coptotermes formosanus. In captivity, pangolins are fed with milk, meat and eggs. Due to absence of teeth, food is directly taken into the Stomach and grinded with the help of strong musculature and pebbles collected during feeding.
Pangolins are timid and inoffensive. For defence they tackle their head towards belly and curl up under the broad scaly tail so that all the vulnerable parts of the body are protected. Squirting of an aromatic liquid from the anal region has been reported as another method of defensive mechanism. Male and female are found to occupy the same burrow with the young, but very little is known about the breeding habits. Breeding season varies from January to March in Deccan plateau, with the rare records of births during the month of July.
The flesh of pangolins is relished by some tribal communities and scales and skins are found in trade. Hunting, during ‘Shikar Utsav’, on a particular day of the year in eastern states also poses a serious threat. Owing to uncommon appearance, unusual apathy of the common people towards pangolins is another threat. Rapid loss and deterioration of habitat, steady increase in the agrarian economy combined with improved irrigation and random use of pesticides appear to be the most serious threat resulting in decline of pangolin population in the country.
Status and Conservation Measures
Both the species of pangolins of India are listed as Lower risk threatened (Lrnt) by IUCN. As per Red Data Book of Indian Animals (Z.S.I 1994), M. crassicaudata is considered vulnerable and M. pentadactyla as insufficiently Known.
A Centre for excellence in Pangolin Research, Conservation and Monitoring studies has been set up at Ajmer in Rajasthan.
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