Pangolin: The Strange Endangered Mammal You Probably Never Heard Of

They’re small nocturnal creatures with long snouts and tails, and they’re the only mammals completely covered in scales. They’re called pangolins, and they’re among the world’s most endangered animals.

Their habitat is disappearing, and they’re hunted for meat, medicine, and the illegal wildlife trade. But scientists don’t know much about their behavior, and many people have never heard of them.

“Ironically, at this point, poachers have much more knowledge about pangolins in the wild than do conservationists,” Joshua DiPaola said in an interview with Hunter College, where he recently earned a master’s degree. DiPaola and Professor Joshua Plotnik (Hunter College, The Graduate Center) co-authored a new paper in Scientific Reports that presents the first controlled experiment on the foraging behavior of the Sunda pangolin of Southeast Asia. Understanding an animal’s behavior and cognition is critical for conservation efforts, the authors say.

In the first half of the experiment, which took place in partially enclosed spaces in an outdoor barn, the researchers studied two pangolins who mostly used their sense of smell to find food, rather than sight or sound. The second half of the experiment, involving one pangolin, suggest that they use scent trails for foraging, instead of relying on wafts of smell from farther away.

The results make sense based on what is known about pangolins and their prey, but the authors note that more data would provide a more comprehensive understanding. That said, part of the reason there hasn’t been much research on pangolins to begin with is because they don’t do well in captivity.

This scaly mammal’s predicament also illuminates an issue closely related to the COVID-19 pandemic: High levels of contact between wild animals and humans can be detrimental to both sides. The pangolin is dying out largely due to human threats, but pangolins have also been suspected as a potential  source of the coronavirus, possibly acting as a vector between bats and humans. While that connection remains unconfirmed, “what is clear is that the illegal wildlife trade and the increasing physical contact between wildlife and humans pose an existential threat not only to biodiversity in general, but also to our own existence as a species,” the authors wrote. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlights a crucial need to look beyond the charisma of endangered species when deciding which animals deserve the field of conservation’s attention,” they added. “It is vital that we work to better understand wildlife behaviour and ecology through research across scientific disciplines, even when focal species are difficult to study or lack popular or political attention.”

Plotnik is the principal investigator for the Comparative Cognition for Conservation Lab, which aims to help save threatened species by learning more about how they think and behave.