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Sunday, October 9, 2011

11. Porcupine and the Pangolin

Evolution, in its endless journey of creating ever shifting diversity and beauty has given animals too its fair share of attention with some of their acquired attributes being nothing but astounding. To inquire and observe how physical and behavioural adaptations fit in so well with the distinct environmental conditions of their respective habitats is fascinating.

Hair coat, the typical skin cover of most mammals is an attractive and mostly a soft physical feature. It provides shelter against unfavourable weather conditions and parasites such as blood sucking insects.

For the porcupine, the coat doubles up as the critical weapon that provides protection against predators.  In an emergency a porcupine has the ability to erect its sharp bunch of quills which are normally leaning backwards. Though the body of the porcupine is well protected by the quills the skin its head is bare and therefore vulnerable.  Predators such as leopard therefore aim at the exposed head. A porcupine instantaneously turns its back towards a dashing predator with its quills fully erected. Although it is commonly believed that the quills are ejected like arrows this is just a misconception. The erected quills with its hissing noise frightens a foe as well as causing it bodily injury that can at times be fatal when it tries to pounce upon the porcupine.

There have been reports from India about tigers and leopards which have died of severe injuries to vital organs such as brain, heart or lungs, caused by piercing quills. Jim Corbet was a famous writer who hunted man eating leopards and tigers in India. Relating his experiences he concludes that the discomfort of the injuries received while trying to prey on porcupine have caused some of the leopards and tigers he came across to become man eaters. According to him although quills that pierce the limbs can be pulled back, pieces of the tip remaining underneath the skin cause infesting wounds. When the animal weakens as a result humans become the easier option for it to prey upon.

Once in Yala East, during a trek to Bowattagala, Mr. Lalith Seneviratne and a group found the remains of a leopard that had succumbed to injuries caused as a result of a wrestle with a porcupine. Quills that had pierced the inside of the mouth and elsewhere could clearly be seen.

Another fascinating creation of nature is the Pangolin. It is a rare nocturnal animal inhabiting the low country.  The layer of overlapping large horny plates on the skin is its protective armour. When faced with danger it seeks refuge by hiding its elongated slender head between the forelimbs and rolling the whole body into the shape of an impenetrable ball. The strength it has to keep the body rolled so is immense. Pangolin does not move fast and relies entirely on this strategy for protection.

Pangolin is one of the few species of wild animals which feed only on ants. It breaks a termite mound and feeds on termites by sliding the thin long tongue inside. Tackiness of the tongue helps to get the termites out. Another unique physical feature of the Pangolin is the lack of teeth - with evolution depriving it of this feature due to it being of no use.

Dexterity of a pangolin in burrowing a termite mound is noteworthy. Resembling steel hooks, its strong claws helps it to reach out to the termite hives breaking the mound in a matter of a few minutes. While on the move, it avoids the claws touching the ground to prevent unnecessary wear. Referring to the strength it has to burrow the ground an Indian writer has recorded an instance where a pangolin had removed stones weighing ten pounds in escaping from a bathroom where it was temporarily caged. A pangolin can never be pulled out once it gets into a burrow and clamps itself to the ground with its claws. Pangolin does not hesitate to climb a tree to hunt red and black ants. It will hang on a branch with its prehensile tail and feed on the ants their eggs and larvae.

Though not asserted to be true or not, an interesting incident is described in W. W. A. Philip’s book “Mammals of Ceylon”.  A villager having killed a pangolin he came across in the jungle slung it on his shoulder and headed back home. Though he thought the animal was dead it had only been stunned and soon regained its consciousness. It coiled itself around the man’s neck strangling him. The man was found dead with the pangolin still clasping the neck.

“Any hound a porcupine nudges
Can't be blamed for harbouring grudges…..”

                       - Ogden Nash



  1. Nice work Gaminie

    I have seen a Pangolin @ yala some years back, but sadly wasnt able to photograph it.



    1. Pangolins are not easy to see and photograph, as it is solitary, Rajive.

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