As its name implies, the giant pangolin is the largest of the eight pangolin species, stretching more than four feet long. And like all pangolins, Smutsia gigantea is covered in protective scales over much of its body, making it look like a walking pinecone.
The scales, which account for a hefty 20 percent of the pangolin’s weight, are made from keratin, the same protein as in human hair and nails.
Pangolins don’t have many defenses; they don’t even have teeth. If a predator like a leopard or a python gets too close, the pangolin rolls into a tight ball. With its tail tucked, scales cover every part of its exposed body, making it a tough nut to crack. The animals also have a stinky, large anal glands to deter predators.
The scales also come in handy when the pangolin snacks on its favorite treat: ants. It takes its long front claws and uses them like a backhoe to pry up rocks and rip into ant colonies (and termite mounds, its other food source). Once it’s made an opening, the pangolin sticks its face in it and uses its very long tongue to slurp up the insects. When the ants swarm, the scales protect the pangolin from bites.
Other anti-ant features include a special valve in its nose that closes, no exterior ears, and thick eyelids.
The giant pangolin is native to the humid forests of West and Central Africa, where it spends its days close to its burrow or partially covered in leaves or brush. It is solitary and comes out to feed only at night.
Pangolins live alone except when it comes time to mate. Females bear a single offspring at a time and are doting single mothers. A baby pangolin will ride on its mother’s back from about a month old, nursing and eating ants. Young stay with their mothers for about two years—when they become sexually mature—before heading off to start their own families.
Elusiveness hasn’t protected giant pangolins from their main predator: humans. Like its pangolin cousins, Smutsia gigantea is hunted for its meat and scales. In fact, pangolins as a group are believed to be the most trafficked mammals in the world. Their scales are especially in demand for traditional Chinese medicine, though there is no scientific evidence that they actually cure illnesses. Giant pangolin numbers are faring better than pangolins in Asia, but the population trend is downward and the species is listed on the IUCN’s Red List as vulnerable.