A pangolin out on its daily walk to forage for ants and termites. These scales covering its body are an effective protective measure against thorny underbrush and predators.

It might surprise you to learn that the most trafficked mammal in the world is one you may have never heard of. Pangolins are scaly anteaters that inhabit parts of Asia and Africa and are one of the most unique animals in the world. They are the only mammal species to have hardened scales covering their skin. Pangolins are illegally trapped by the tens of thousands every year for their meat and their scales which are thought to have medicinal properties in some parts of the world. These hardened scales cover their body and are simply made of keratin, the same protein that makes up human hair and fingernails. Unfortunately, due to poaching, deforestation, and disease, pangolins are currently at-risk of extinction throughout their range.

In January 2019, Minnesota Zoo staff Jennifer Zuehlke and Jessica Larios traveled to Namibia to support pangolin and other endangered species rehabilition. Zuehlke and Larios spent 10 days with the Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST) in Outjo, Namibia working to care for pangolins that were being rehabilitated, as well as other animals such as vultures, tortoises, and jackals.

MN Zoo staff observing a pangolin while it forages for ants and termites.

Pangolins are difficult to keep healthy throughout their rehabilitation as they have very specialized diets. They eat almost exclusively ants and termites and spend much of their time in the wild foraging. Pangolins under the care of the staff at REST need to be walked daily so they can find ant and termite mounds to feed from. Zuelhke and Larios helped “walk” the pangolins throughout the surrounding area by tracking their every move while they hunted for insects. It turns out there is good reason these mammals are covered in hard scales! These little shields protect their bodies from the harsh and thorny underbrush as they forage- an adaptation the staff sure wished they had use of while trekking around after them!

Very little is known about pangolins so every piece of research collected is valuable, including what staff can gather about their dietary preferences and foraging habits when monitoring them on a daily basis. This research, as well as education and outreach, is vital to their long-term survival and is used to inform conservation efforts.

The amazing and crucial work that Zuelkhe and Larios were able to support was supported through the Ulysses S. Seal Grant Program, an initiative by the Minnesota Zoo Foundation to support conservation efforts throughout the world. You can learn more about this program and the many species of endangered wildlife across the globe that it has supported here.