Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla)

French: Pangolin À Queue Courte, Pangolin De Chine
Spanish: Pangolín Chino
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderPholidota
FamilyManidae
GenusManis (1)
SizeHead-body length: 42 – 92 cm (2)
Tail length: 28 – 35 cm (2)
Weight2 – 7 kg (2)

Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

The peculiar-looking Chinese pangolin is one of just eight species belonging to the order Pholodia, meaning ‘scaled animals’ (4). The pangolin is also known as a scaly anteater because, despite not being closely related to anteaters, it is highly specialised in feeding solely on ants and termites (4).

The elongate, streamlined body and long, flat tail of the Chinese pangolin are covered in brownish scales, except for the soft, off-white underside and much of the face (2) (4) (5). These scales are actually formed from fused hair, and contribute to 25 percent of the Chinese pangolin’s total weight (6). When in danger, the pangolin can roll into a ball, leaving only the scaly parts of its body exposed, protecting the pangolin from predators (6). The name ‘pangolin’ actually arises from a Malayan word meaning ‘the roller’ (7).

The head is small compared to the size of the body, with small eyes and, unlike some other pangolin species, external ears (6). It is highly adapted to its diet of ants and termites (2), with long claws (up to five centimetres long) that can rip open termite and ant nests, and a long, thin tongue, measuring up to 40 centimetres in length, that scoops prey into its toothless mouth (6).

In Mandarin, the Chinese pangolin’s name ‘Ling-Li’ means ‘hill carp’ which refers to its brownish-yellow scales being similar to those of Chinese carp, whereas in Cantonese its name means ‘animal that digs through mountain’ (6).

The Chinese pangolin has a wide distribution, occurring across many provinces of China south of the Yangtze river, as well as in Taiwan, Hong Kong, northern India, Vietnam, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (1) (6).

The Chinese pangolin is found in a wide variety of habitats including tropical, coniferous, evergreen and bamboo forests, grasslands and agricultural fields (1) (6).

The Chinese pangolin lives a solitary life and (5), although it is highly terrestrial, it is also fully capable of climbing trees and is a good swimmer (1). Often moving slowly on all fours, the pangolin walks on its knuckles (4), with its front claws curled under, resulting in some very distinctive footprints (8). Occasionally, it may rise onto its hindlegs to walk, with the body more upright and the forelegs held in the air; this is also the position it adopts when attacking a termite nest (7).

With its long claws the pangolin excavates a burrow in which it sleeps during the day, emerging early in the evening to search for food (6). It has poor vision, but instead of sight, the Chinese pangolin relies on smell to find prey (6). Using its strong fore-claws to break open a termite or ant nest, the Chinese pangolin then uses its long, sticky tongue to scoop the insects into its mouth (2). While feeding, the pangolin can close its nostrils and ears to protect against swarming, biting insects, while thick lids shield the eyes (7). As it lacks teeth, its meal is ground down in the muscular stomach instead (4).

In late summer or early autumn, male Chinese pangolins may be observed fighting over the opportunity to mate with a female, resulting in the victor and female mating over a period of three to five days (4). The Chinese pangolin spends the winter in deep burrows, situated next to a termite nest to provide a food source. During this period, females give birth to a single offspring, which is reared through winter in the burrow, before emerging with the mother in spring (4) (6). Once outside the burrow, the young pangolin is carried around on its mother’s tail (6). The Chinese pangolin is thought to reach sexual maturity at around one year of age (4).

Due to its solitary and nocturnal nature this species is rarely observed, and therefore little information exists on its status; however, the population is believed to be declining (1). The Chinese pangolin has been intensively hunted for its meat, which is considered a delicacy, as well as for its skin, and scales, which have been used to scratch mosquito bites, due to their supposed antiseptic properties, or ground into a powder which is believed to have aphrodisiac properties and an ability to cure for skin diseases (4) (6). Due to it being more terrestrial than other Asian pangolin species it has been easier to hunt and is now very rare in some countries of its range, such as Vietnam and Lao PDR (1). Hunting is the main threat to the Chinese pangolin, as disturbance of its habitat has not been shown to have a large impact, provided its food source of termites and ants are not lost (1).  

The Chinese pangolin is legally protected in the majority of countries it resides in, including Bangladesh, China, Taiwan, Thailand and India. It also occurs in some protected areas but, unfortunately, these measures have not been sufficient in reducing the illegal hunting and trade that takes place (1). While large seizures of illegally caught Chinese pangolins do occur, greater enforcement of laws and improved management of protected areas are required to prevent this devastating hunting (1).

To learn more about the conservation of the Chinese pangolin see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Smith, A.T. and Xie, Y. (2008) A Guide to the Mammals of China. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. 
  3. CITES (April, 2010)
    http://www.cites.org
  4. Nowak, R.M. (1999) Walker's Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
  5. Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. Heath, M.E. (1992) Manis Pentadactayla. Mammalian Species, 414: 1-6.
  7. Hildyard, A., Horobin, W. and Wood, S. (2007) Wildlife and Plants. Third Edition. Marshall Cavendish Corporation, Tarrytown, New York.
  8. Francis, C.M. (2008) A Field Guide to the Mammals of South-East Asia. New Holland Publishers, London.