Pangolins or scaly anteaters are mammals in the order Pholidota. There is only one extant family (Manidae) and one genus (Manis) of pangolins, comprising eight species. There are also a number of extinct taxa. Pangolins have large keratin scales covering their skin and are the only mammals with this adaptation. They are found in tropical regions of Africa and Asia. The name "pangolin" derives from the Malay word pengguling ("something that rolls up"). Pangolins are nocturnal animals, using their well-developed sense of smell to find insects. The long-tailed pangolin is also active by day. Pangolins spend most of the daytime sleeping, curled up into a ball.
Pangolins were classified with various other orders, for example Xenarthra, which includes the ordinary anteaters, sloths, and the similar-looking armadillos. But newer genetic evidence, indicates that their closest living relatives are the Carnivora, with which they form a clade, the Ferae. Some paleontologists have classified the pangolins in the order Cimolesta, together with several extinct groups.
The size of pangolins varies by species, ranging from 30 cm to 100 cm (12 to 39 inches). Females are generally smaller than males.
The tongues of pangolins are extremely elongated and extend into the abdominal cavity. By convergent evolution pangolins, the giant anteater, and the tube-lipped nectar bat, all have tongues which are unattached from their hyoid bone and extend past their pharynx deep into the thorax. This extension lies between the sternum and the trachea. Large pangolins can extend their tongues as much as 40 cm (16 inches), with a diameter of only 0.5 cm (1/4 inch).
In pangolins, the section of the brain that relates to problem solving is highly developed. Although their problem solving ability is primarily used to find food in obscure locations, when kept in captivity pangolins are remarkable escape artists..
Arboreal pangolins live in hollow trees, whereas the ground dwelling species dig tunnels underground, up to a depth of 3.5 meters (11 feet). Pangolins are also good swimmers.
Pangolins lack teeth and the ability to chew. Instead, they tear open anthills or termite mounds with their powerful front claws and probe deep into them with their very long tongues. Pangolins have an enormous salivary gland in their chests to lubricate the tongue with sticky, ant-catching saliva.
Some species, such as the Tree Pangolin, use their strong tails to hang from tree branches and strip away bark from the trunk, exposing insect nests inside.
Pangolin are hunted and eaten in many parts of Africa and it is one of the more popular types of bush meat. Pangolins are also in great demand in China because their meat is considered a delicacy and some Chinese believe pangolin scales reduce swelling, promote blood circulation and help breast-feeding women produce milk. This, coupled with deforestation, has led to a large decrease in the numbers of Giant Pangolins.
Pangolin populations have suffered from illegal trafficking. In May 2007, for example, Guardian Unlimited reported that 31 pangolins were found aboard an abandoned vessel off the coast of China. The boat contained some 5,000 endangered animals.
The Guardian recently provided a description of the killing and eating of pangolins: "A Guangdong chef interviewed last year in the Beijing Science and Technology Daily described how to cook a pangolin: 'We keep them alive in cages until the customer makes an order. Then we hammer them unconscious, cut their throats and drain the blood. It is a slow death. We then boil them to remove the scales. We cut the meat into small pieces and use it to make a number of dishes, including braised meat and soup. Usually the customers take the blood home with them afterwards.'"
On November 10, 2007, Thai customs officers announced that they had rescued over 100 pangolins as the animals were being smuggled out of the country, en route to China, where they were to be sold for cooking.