Last summer, my friends introduced me to what is now my favorite animal, the pangolin. As soon as I saw a picture of a baby pangolin, I fell in love. I’ve decided to dedicate this blog post to the pangolin, a not very well known mammal that has a bigger impact on our ecosystem than we think.
The Pangolin is a mammal from Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. These creatures roam around during the day in search of ants and termites to eat. There are multiple key features that set the pangolin apart from other mammals. First of all, the pangolin is the only mammal with scales (they remind me of walking pine cones). These scales are important armory from the ants. Ants and termites have yet to develop a useful technique to keep predators like the pangolin away; their only tactic is biting which doesn’t penetrate the pangolin’s thick scales. The pangolin also has extremely think eyelids and ear valves that open and close. These adaptations allow them to be completely immune to ants. These mammals have extremely large claws, which make it easy to rip open anthills and flip over rocks. They use their tongue (which when extended is longer than its entire body) to slide through the crevices of anthills. The tongue is continually lubricated by an overactive salivary gland, which makes it sticky enough to capture ants. Because of their extremely useful tongues, pangolins adapted without teeth because they have no use for them. Pangolins only have 2 considerable disabilities. The first is their extremely poor eyesight, which is compensated by their heightened sense of smell. Secondly, they are very slow creatures, walking on their two hind legs ad using their long tails for balance. Their lack of speed isn’t too much of an issue though. Similar to an armadillo, these animals can roll up and are protected with their scales from any looming prey. The name pangolin actually comes from the Malay word “pengulling” which means “something that rolls up”. These animals used to be considered close relatives of the anteaters and armadillos. Their striking resemblance to armadillos made it even more plausible. Scientists then saw that “pangolins lack certain highly distinctive skeletal features seen in armadillos and anteaters.” Their relationship to other animals is currently unclear, but Texas A&M University’s biology department explains that “they are actually thought to be most closely related to true Carnivores (Order Carnivora).” There are 8 different species of pangolins: 4 in Asia and 4 in Africa. The only things that set them apart are slight physical differences and habitat differences. The 4 Asian pangolin species have bristles that emerge from between the scales that set them apart from the African pangolins. The Asian pangolins reside in thick forests, and are threatened by habitat loss due to expanding agriculture and human development, unlike the African pangolins who reside in Savannah grasslands.
These animals play a more important role in our ecosystem than we think. Firstly, they provide pest control. Pangolins.org reports that “a single pangolin consumes 70 million insects a year… That’s about 191,780 insects per day!” These pangolins help to control the ant and termite populations, and “certainly help to control their insect prey’s numbers, contributing to the delicate balance of the ecosystems they inhabit.” Secondly, they are natural soil caretakers. As they dig up anthills with their massive claws, they are churning the soil, which improves the nutrient quality and aids the decomposition cycle. In return, this allows more foliage to grow in the enriched soil.
So What’s The Problem
Pangolins are currently the most trafficked animal on earth. According to this article, “some estimates claim that sales now account for up to 20 per cent of the entire wildlife black market.” They are hunted for food and used for traditional medicine in China. In Asia, bags of pangolin scales are sold because people believe that they can cure anything and everything from cancer to acne. “Inadequate public and governmental awareness of the trade itself are among the factors that make the trade difficult to combat, as well as insufficient political will and financial resources.” The government and people involved in this illegal black market trade need to see just how detrimental it can be to wipe out a species, even if you don’t think they do much for our ecosystem. Ecosystems are maintained when both biotic and abiotic factors are working together and doing their equal parts. “The extinction of pangolins may seem like a minimal loss, but the more parts you remove from a system, the closer it becomes to collapse.” Without the pangolin, there would be an over abundance of pesky insects in Asia and Africa. Plant life would also have a more difficult time thriving without the help of the pangolin to churn up nutrients from deep in the soil. This seemingly insignificant animal is the perfect example of the intricate balances within our world’s diverse and complex ecosystems.
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