From a frog’s snug wetsuit to a llama’s wooly shag, animals are bestowed with the wrapping they require. Even when the efforts seem excessive, we must conclude that every species has been thoroughly considered, and who are we, anyway, to question Creation?
The first time I saw a picture of a pangolin, I was reminded of pharaohs, of ancient tombs and golden riches and all we do not, cannot, know. Almost every inch of a pangolin’s body is covered in sharp over-lapping scales; no other mammal sports such armor. What is there about this creature that warrants exceptional protection?
There are eight species of pangolins, four in Asia and four in Africa. Ranging in length from a foot to a yard, they are heavily hunted for their meat as well as their scales. All are consequently endangered and may well disappear—one more puzzle piece forever lost.
Nocturnal animals, pangolins spend their days curled up in deep tunnels or hollow trees. They feed on ants and termites, which they dispatch with their long, thin tongues. Like giant anteaters, the tongues of pangolins are rooted in the thorax and can extend nearly a foot and a half. They are short-legged animals and use their formidable claws to dig into ant hills. Because they do not see well, pangolins are gifted with a keen sense of smell for locating their prey. Some types hang by their tails from branches and scratch away tree bark to expose the insects beneath. Discriminating diners, they will ignore all but a few types of bugs, sensing perhaps what is good for them and avoiding junk food.
Pangolins are loners, meeting only once a year for mating purposes. Unlike most animals, males, which are larger than females, do not search for them. The males employ a passive come-hither, leaving their calling card in the form of urine or feces, which the females readily find. If competition is involved, males will bash each other with their tails until a victor emerges. Gestation lengths differ depending on the species—anywhere from 70 to 140 days. Most give birth to one six-inch pangopup at a time. Four weeks later, the pup emerges from the burrow, riding on its mother’s back; mother and offspring stay together for two years.
The keratin scales of a baby pangolin are soft and white at birth, hardening and darkening within just a few days. There is an international ban on their trade, but pangolins are widely poached for their scales, which are ground into powder and illegally purchased. In East Asia many people believe, without evidence, that the scales can cure various human diseases, another example of the way we exploit and imperil whatever strikes us as extraordinary.
When threatened, pangolins curl up in a ball and tuck their faces under their tales. They also emit a foul chemical from glands near the anus, similar to skunk spray. Left with a spiny, smelly ball, would-be predators soon lose interest. Unfortunately, these excellent defenses do not work against humans.
Is humanity a failed experiment? Given our swathe of destruction, it would seem so. We have brains enough to redeem ourselves, but probably not enough time. Everything in any case is destined to expire.
Why are we here? Why is the pangolin the only mammal suited in armor? Nature just bounces these questions right back, as if she’s holding out hope, waiting for us to see the big picture. What if pangolins were put here to amaze us and we were brought in to admire them? What if our mission is that simple? What more than esteem does this old earth need?