Sloth versus Pangolin
The humble sloth vs the armored pangolin, what have these two unusual mammals got in common?
Pangolins are sometimes called “scaly anteaters”, because they A) have scales, and B) eat ants. If you remember our Sloth vs Anteater blog, you may be tempted to think the pangolins, like the furry anteaters, are distant cousins of the sloths, but in fact, they aren’t very related at all.
Similar but not related
In fact, of all the placental mammals, sloths and pangolins are as distantly related as can be: they last shared a common ancestor about 90 to 100 million years ago. That means they’ve spent about half of all mammalian existence doing their own thing.
Scientists once thought that the sloth’s order Xenarthra and the pangolins order Pholidota (which means “clad in scales” in Ancient Greek) were closely related, probably because pangolins look very much like you’d expect if you crossed a furry anteater with an armadillo (which can’t be done, trust us), but now that they have genetic sequencing available, the two orders have been reclassified.
Mammals have fur… except pangolins
One thing sloths and pangolins have in common is that they are both mammals, even though the pangolin is sometimes mistaken for a medieval suit of armor and the sloth meets several criteria to be in fact classified as a plant. (No, really, there are species of plants to move faster than sloths do. The Venus flytrap closes in milliseconds, and the dogwood bunchberry flower explodes in fractions of milliseconds. You can’t make this stuff up.)
Like most mammals, sloths have fur, and unlike most mammals, pangolins have scales. These scales aren’t like fish scales or reptile scales though, they are made of keratin, like fingernails. Imagine having fingernails all over your whole body! You’d spend a fortune at the salon.
They use these scales for defense by curling up into a ball and wrapping their thick tails around their faces, making it hard for predators to eat them. This is a very different method of defense than sloths use, which is to stay very still and blend into the rainforest canopy.
One thing that’s quite different about sloths and pangolins is the way they smell; sloths have almost no discernible body odor (see “possibly a plant”, mentioned about), while pangolins have scent glands similar to those of a skunk, which is quite noxious and may aid in driving off predators.
Species of pangolin
There are eight extant species of pangolin. They comprise the Chinese pangolin, Indian pangolin, Sunda pangolin, and Philippine pangolin, which inhabit Asia, and the white-bellied pangolin, black-bellied pangolin, giant pangolin, and Temminck’s pangolin, which occur in Africa.
The most trafficked animal in the world
This distribution has kept the sloth out of the crosshairs of Chinese traditional medicine, which unfortunately has many recipes for parts of the pangolin, especially the scales. Pangolins have the unfortunate distinction of being the most trafficked animal in the world, with over 100,000 animals sold on the black market each year.
Like the sloth, they do not breed well in captivity, meaning that nearly all captive and traded animals are kidnapped from the wild. It is estimated that more than a million pangolins have been snatched from the wild in the past decade. There are eight species of pangolins, and each of them is listed by the IUCN as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.
Perhaps the best thing that sloths and pangolins have in common is that both of them have friends in the fields of wildlife conservation who are dedicated to their survival.
Multiple rescue centers in Taiwan have helped the pangolin population rebound in that country, and international organizations like Save Pangolins or the Pangolin Crisis Fund work across borders and even continents to make sure these amazing animals live to see another day.
So let the forces of Sloth Conservation and Pangolin Conservation join together to celebrate World Pangolin Day, because no matter if you have skin, scales, or fur, we’re here for you.