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Home > Wildlife > Articles > Pangolins and porcupines

Pangolins and porcupines


Pangolins are mammals that belong to the Family Manidae and the Genus Manis. This genus comprises of eight species - Indian, Chinese, Malaysian, Pangwan, Giant, Cape, Tree and the Long-tailed, that are spread over in Southeast Asia and Africa. There are four species in Africa and four in Southeast Asia.

The pangolin species (Manis crassicaudata) is one of the mammals that are rarely seen in Sri Lanka. The derivation of the name pangolin is from Malay Pang gullin meaning one that rolls up.

In Sinhala it is called Kebellawa and in Tamil Allangu. The pangolin is also called the Scaly Ant-eater or, very rarely, 'Armadillo'.

The pangolin is found in other Asian countries as well. It is related to the Ant-eater in Africa and the Armadillo in South America. The pangolin in Sri Lanka is strictly terrestrial in that it dwells only on the ground. However, some of the other species are known to climb trees as well.

The pangolin is found in many parts of low country going up to about 3,500 feet. I have seen them in the wild in the Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Badulla districts but nowhere in their habitats are they found in large numbers.

The colour of a pangolin varies with the colour of the soils of their habitats. It can be a red colour where the soils are red and a gray hue where the soils are that colour. The underparts are a dull white colour.

The pangolin is short and about five feet long from head to tail. They have small heads with pointed and elongated jaws. These jaws are tube-shaped and cannot be opened wide. They have small mouths, which have no teeth and therefore they cannot chew on anything.

The tongue is long and narrow. Its eyes and ears are small. The tail is long and powerful but the limbs are short. The pangolin is, all in all, a strange looking animal but a very interesting one.

The physical appearance of a pangolin is marked by large, hardened, plate-like scales, which are actually mats of hair. The hair is clamped together so tightly and in such a way that makes them look like scales. These scales overlap and are at about 45 degrees to the body. The head, the back and the sides of the body, the whole of the tail and the outside of the limbs are covered with these scales. The under parts are naked or covered scantily with fairly thick hairs.

This armour plate of scales is very strong and the scales are very sharp. When the pangolin moves the scales give out a rustling sound. The scales of the young pangolins are soft. They harden as the baby grows older.

The pangolin has three main claws on its fore feet, which are long and slightly curved. The feet and toes of the fore feet are very strong. They are much longer and stronger than those on the hind feet. This is to help it to excavate the earth and anthills. A pangolin is capable of digging, anthills etc., very fast. Pangolins in other countries that climb trees find that these claws assist them to climb as well.

As a result of the positioning of these claws the pangolin finds it difficult to walk properly. The claws are highly adapted for digging and the mouth is adapted for sucking up ants.

The pangolin has a large tail, which helps it to balance when moving about. It is a good swimmer. Pangolins walk in a hunched manner practically on their hind feet with the tail used to keep the balance.

However it can walk as fast as a man can walk. When it moves about, it elevates its tail. When it walks, it looks as if it is walking on its knuckles with the soles of its feet turned outwards. This is because of the positioning of its claws.

Emerson Tennent says 'The pangolin has the capacity of rolling itself up into a compact ball by bending its head towards its stomach, arching its back into a circle and securing all by a powerful fold of its scale covered tail.'

The diet of the pangolin consists almost entirely of burrowing social insects such as ants and termites and their eggs. The pangolin has a long tongue with sticky saliva, which is useful to probe deep into termite nests. They have large salivary glands on either side of the head and neck, which lubricate the tongue onto which the ants get stuck.

The tongue can be protruded to about a foot. The elongated snout helps it to probe termite nests. After breaking the ant nests or the termite hills with its powerful front claws the pangolin removes the ants or termites with its very large, sticky tongue. Ants and termites are totally defenseless before such a predator.

Since the Pangolins have no teeth, the ants etc are swallowed whole as the process of digesting its food is all done in the stomach. They have a two-chambered stomach. One is used for storage, the other which is1/5th the total size of the stomach is rough and lined with a thick muscular tissue. This is the part of the stomach that 'chews' and grinds the food before it goes to the intestines. The stomach contents of a pangolin in India had beetle wing sheaths, cockroaches and skins of worms. This may be the dietary adaptation of a pangolin that did not have access to its normal food.

Pangolins excavate burrows where it stays during the day and comes out at night to forage for food. The pangolin is a nocturnal mammal. The burrow can be upto six feet in length. Once inside the burrow it covers the entrance with earth. It is generally a lone animal and rarely seen together.

Pangolins can emit a very offensive smell from a gland situated near its anus somewhat like the skunks in Europe. When in danger or frightened, it will flex its tail and neck and will roll itself into a ball, presenting the horny scales to the aggressor. Its muscles are extraordinarily strong and it can defy all attempts to unroll it.

Some years ago a villager had gone hunting for deer or wild boar. He had, however, come across a pangolin and due to the fact that they cannot move very fast, was able to shoot and kill it. He slung the pangolin across his shoulders so that the pangolin's head and tail came from behind his neck and over each shoulder in front. He started to move off towards his home.

However, the pangolin had not died, as assumed, and recovered. The first reaction of the pangolin was to, as it normally does when it is under threat, curl itself into a defensive ball. The ball is then impenetrable due to the thick scales that cover the pangolin. In this instance too the pangolin tried to curl itself into a ball but since it was round the neck of the hunter it coiled round the neck of the hunter. In the process it throttled the man. He was found dead the next day close to his home.

Female pangolins are smaller than the males. They produce at least one but a maximum of three offspring have been recorded. The gestation period seems to be four to five months. The baby is born in a burrow excavated by the adults. Phillips says that the young one, soon after it has been born and until it is old enough to accompany its mother on foot, is carried by her on her nightly wanderings in search of food. Instinctively, it climbs onto its mother's tail and is carried about by her.

It scrambles onto the base of the tail and hangs on very tightly, lying across the tail with its claws tucked under the scales. When alarmed, she flexes her tail and her neck under the ventral part of the body sheltering the young in the cavity thus formed.

In capitivity, pangolins have lived for over three years, but how long they can live in the wild appears to be unknown.

When I was on a tea estate in Passara, a young pangolin was brought to me by some labourers who had killed the mother for the 'pot'. I kept it for about two weeks and when I next went down to Colombo handed it over to the Zoo.

I fed it on low fat milk, the white of egg and the larvae of ants, which were abundant on the estate. The baby seemed to do well on this diet. It used to make a hissing sound like a cat. I believe that even the adults make this same sound.

The flesh of the pangolin is very popular with the Sinhalese and the estate Tamils who live in the lower Uva district where there are pangolins. Pangolins are not encountered in the hill country. Pangolins are chased relentlessly and when it gets into its hole in the ground or a hole in a termite mound, it is dragged out by its tail and killed. It is not easy to drag out a pangolin because it wedges its claws on the side of the hole and hangs on tenaciously. The strong feet and claws help it to hang on till the last.

The pangolin has poor eyesight. It's hearing is also weak. However it has a very acute sense of smell on which it depends to locate the nests of ants and termites. Its sense of taste is also supposed to be highly developed.

In China the flesh of the pangolin is used for medicinal purposes. The Chinese believe scales of pangolin purportedly reduce swelling, promote blood circulation and help breast-feeding women to produce milk.

Pangolins are important members of the ecosystem. They keep the population of ants and termites in check. Termites are known as ferocious and persistent pests, which attack the timber and damage the houses. Pangolins keep a check on their population by reducing their numbers.


Porcupines are rodents. There are two families of porcupines, Hystricidae (Old World Porcupines) and Erethizontidae (New World Porcupines). There are many similarities between the two families, but for this article, we will consider only the species found in Sri Lanka.

Those found in Sri Lanka belong to the Genus Hystrix. The Indian Crested Porcupine, found in Sri Lanka, has as its scientific name Hystrix indica. It is called Ittawa in Sinhala and Mullam Pandi in Tamil. The meaning of the Tamil name is prickly pig.

Porcupines are mammals that can be easily recognized as soon as you see them. They have a host of pointed quills on their bodies. These quills are also called spines. Beneath the longer and thinner spines lies a layer of thicker and shorter ones.

Quills are modified hair, which grows on their bodies. Earlier we read of pangolins having some of their body hair modified as scales.

The hair modifications of the porcupines are totally different to the hair modifications of the pangolin. The porcupine's quills are thin, straight and sharp at the end. The pangolins are flat and broad.

Porcupines are found in a number of environments in all parts of the country. They are nocturnal and an agricultural pest. They keep digging for yams, which they relish and being omnivorous, looking for all types of food. This food consists of fruit, grain, roots, tubers, bulbs and all crops. They dig up vegetable gardens and other cultivations and create a lot of damage. They also like to eat carrion.

They use their sharp front teeth to gnaw at the bark of trees and bones. Bones are gnawed for calcium, which helps in the formation of their quills. During the day they stay in small caves, crevices and also burrows made by other animals. Porcupine are not seen regularly on moonlight nights.

The porcupines is gregarious in that they are seen in groups. These groups occupy the natural caves or caves formed by boulders, in which they spend the day. When they come out at night they break up to look for food.

Porcupines have a stocky body with short legs. The porcupine's body is covered with hair, bristles and quills of varying length. When alarmed the porcupine rattles its quills and makes a hissing sound.

The porcupine, as popularly believed, does not shoot out its quills, which are hollow. When excited or in defense the quills are erected. This makes the porcupine look bigger than it actually is and also prevents any predator from attacking it due to the sharp quills all round the body, pointing outwards. Their quills are not barbed.

Sometimes the porcupine moves fast backwards towards an aggressor trying to get its quills into it. The quills are of varying length and diameter but some of these can be as long as 15 inches and 3/8" in diameter.

Porcupines have the ability to rattle their quills by vibration when alarmed. This species has rattle quills in its tail that are larger and hollow on the end furthest from the body. The quills are loosely fixed to the skin and come out easily and lodge in anyone that is hit by the back-peddling porcupine.

The porcupine has short ears, which are generally covered in hair, and relatively small eyes. Hair also covers the muzzle and feet. It also has a crest of long bristles in a single row.

These bristles continue up to the middle of the back. The bristles are about six inches long and are brown in colour. They grunt like a pig.

The spines are coloured black and brown with alternating white bands. W.W.A. Phillips says that occasionally in the Kantalai district of the Dry Zone, porcupines have been met with, which have the normal white of the quills replaced by bright pink or red quills. Apparently the same phenomenon occurs in India as well. I have seen some of these quills but not when they were on a porcupine.

A single baby is born each year. The young are fairly well developed at birth. The body is covered with short soft spines, which harden and grow later. The mother can become quite aggressive when it is necessary to protect its young. The babies are born in the cave or tunnel in which they stay during the day. They usually drag leaf and plant material into their nest.

Porcupines are terrestrial and nocturnal in habit. They inhabit crevices, caves or burrows, mostly dug by other animals. They shuffle as they run and can trot and gallop when alarmed. They are good swimmers. The porcupine has a heavy gait because it walks on the soles of its feet with the heels barely touching the ground.

This species has quills that are used as ornaments and talismans. Porcupines are hunted for their meat. Old World porcupines live an average of 20 years. Porcupines are hunted by villagers who have guns, for their flesh which is said to be like pork but sweeter.

Porcupines, when captured, become tame very easily. They also breed freely in captivity. One can see tame porcupines on the roadsides on certain routes that tourists take. I have seen them in Sigiriya, Pinnawela and Galigomuwa on the Colombo - Kandy road. In some instances even babies are seen with adult porcupines.

They are there for tourists to look, admire and photograph. Of course they cannot be petted because of their quills. The owners of the porcupines request payment from the tourists for this rare opportunity to see and photograph porcupines.

Porcupines, like wild boar, are pests in some areas, where they destroy crops and cause economic losses to the farmers. However, they also fill a role in the ecosystem by cleaning out their habitats of carrion etc. Also porcupines do not breed as profusely as wild boar and as a result do not have large populations. Since it is able to adapt to a range of habitats and food types, its population stability is ensured.

By Jayantha Jayawardene
Daily News 21 August 2006

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Updated May 7, 2007
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