Three-cusped pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis)

Also known as: Tree pangolin, white-bellied pangolin
French: Pangolin À Écailles Tricuspides, Pangolin Commun, Tricuspide
GenusPhataginus (1)
SizeHead-body length: 46 cm (2)
Weight1.8 kg (2)

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

With its tough, scaly, armoured body, the three-cusped pangolin looks rather incongruous moving about amongst the foliage of tropical forests. However, with its long, prehensile tail which has a bare, sensory pad at the tip (4), and clawed feet (5), the three-cusped pangolin is well adapted to scale the trunks and branches of trees. Brown, sharp-edged, overlapping scales protect the body of the pangolin (2), which are attached at the base to its thick skin (5). Each of these artichoke-leaf shaped scales has three points, hence the common and scientific name tricuspis (2). The head of the three-cusped pangolin is small and pointed, with thick, heavy eyelids that protect its eyes from the bites of ants and termites on which it feeds (4) (5). For the same reason, its nostrils and ear openings can be closed by special muscles when feeding (4) (5). It feeds using its remarkably long tongue, which can extend to around 25 centimetres and is anchored to a point on the pelvis (5).

The three-cusped pangolin ranges from Guinea and Sierra Leone in West Africa, east to Kenya and Tanzania, and south to Zambia and Angola (1).

This arboreal species inhabits lowland tropical moist forest, as well as forest-savannah mosaics. In areas where it is not hunted, the three-cusped pangolin may also occur in cultivated and fallow land (1).

The three-cusped pangolin is a nocturnal species, which spends its days sheltering in tree hollows (2), curled up amongst epiphytes, or in the forked branch of a tree (4). At night, it departs from its shelter and commences its search for food. Occasionally, the three-cusped pangolin may also descend to the ground, where it walks on all fours or moves about balanced just on its hindlimbs (2). Like all pangolins, this species specialises in feeding on ants and termites (4), although other invertebrates may also be eaten (1). Thus it searches for hanging ant and termite nests, or attacks a column of insects as they march around a tree (4), detecting its prey primarily by scent (5). The clawed forefeet are proficient in tearing apart nests, and insects stick to its incredibly long tongue as it darts in and out of the passageways (5). The three-cusped pangolin has no teeth, so prey is swallowed whole and ground up in the muscular stomach (5).

Pangolins are generally solitary animals, only rarely seen in pairs. Typically, a single young is born in winter (5), after a gestation period of about 150 days (1). The newborn, whose scales do not harden until the second day of life, is then carried on the female’s back or tail (5).

Pangolins are relatively timid creatures, whose most efficient defence mechanism is to curl up into a tight ball. The sharp scales thus present an almost impenetrable wall, protecting the pangolin’s vulnerable, soft underparts (5). A female with a young will curl its body around its young, and the erected scales and twitches of the tail act to deter many predators (5).

Although not currently considered to be threatened with extinction, the three-cusped pangolin is suffering population declines as a result of hunting (1). It is exploited for its flesh which is eaten (1), and its scales which are used in traditional medicine (4). It is hunted at unsustainable levels in certain areas of its range, and is by far the most common of all pangolin species in African bushmeat markets (1).

The three-cusped pangolin is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), thus the international trade that occurs in this species should be monitored to ensure it is compatible with the survival of the species (1) (3). However, the further development and enforcement of laws to protect this pangolin are required (1), to ensure that the status of this species does not deteriorate any further.

To support the efforts of conservationists working to protect pangolins see:

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Authenticated (12/08/2009) by Chao, Jung-Tai, Ph.D. Chair of the former IUCN Pangolin Specialist Group and Senior Scientist, Taiwan Forestry Research Institute.

  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2009)