Studying the World’s Most Trafficked Animal

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Studying the World’s Most Trafficked Animal

What nocturnal mammal is covered in scales, eats ants and termites, lives in Africa, and is critically endangered?

(Photo right by Matthew Shirley)

If you guessed the pangolin, you’d be right!

What are pangolins?

Looking at them, you might think they are a cross between an armadillo and an anteater. Not too long ago, they were thought to be related to anteaters, sloths, and armadillos. Recent genetic evidence, however, indicates that their closest living relatives are actually a diverse group of animals that includes cats, hyenas, dogs, bears, and seals.

The pangolin is the only animal with large, protective keratin scales covering its skin. With its overlapping scales acting as armor, it can curl up into a ball when threatened.

The tongues of pangolins are extremely long – large pangolins can extend their tongues as much as 40 cm (16 in). Their saliva is sticky, causing their foods of choice – ants and termites – to stick to their long tongues.

Other fun facts:

  • Pangolins can emit a noxious-smelling chemical, similar to the spray of a skunk.
  • They have no teeth, so they ingest small stones that accumulate in their stomachs to help grind up the insects they consume.
  • They tend to be loners, only meeting to mate and produce one to three offspring, which they parent for about two years.
  • Most pangolins are nocturnal, and they have pretty poor vision, so they use their well-developed sense of smell to find insects.

Why are pangolins endangered?

There are eight species of pangolins, all of which are on the brink of extinction, with three listed as Critically Endangered, three listed as Endangered, and two listed as Vulnerable.

Besides being threatened by heavy deforestation of their natural habitats, pangolins are in high demand for Chinese traditional medicine because their scales are believed to have medicinal properties.

It is estimated that 100,000 pangolins are trafficked to China and Vietnam every year, making the pangolin the most trafficked animal in the world.

How are HOBO data loggers being used to help?

Conservation officials didn’t have the data they needed to help protect and restore pangolin populations. So Matthew H. Shirley, a researcher at the Tropical Conservation Institute of Florida International University (FIU), and his team traveled to Africa to study and collect much-needed information about these highly elusive animals.

As part of this ongoing research, which started in November 2018, HOBO Pendant Temperature and Light data loggers are being used to study pangolin movements. Outfitting them with radio transmitters and a HOBO Pendant data logger, Shirley and his team tagged 15 black-bellied pangolins, which are nearly impossible to observe in the wild.

It’s expected that the data, which is logged every four minutes, will provide the researchers with a better understanding of how pangolins interact with their environments.

(Mathieu Assovi (left) and FIU researcher Matthew Shirley (right) prepare to release the first black-bellied pangolin ever to be tagged. Photo above by Matthew Shirley)

For more information on these HOBO data loggers being used to study pangolins: