Feeding ecology and diet

Pangolins are insectivorous, with a very limited diet almost exclusively of insects, mostly termites and ants (and some soft-bodied insects and larvae) that are located by scent. The larger species sometimes eat larger insects. Variations in diet may be due to the availability of local supplies or on seasonal variations. Pangolins show a strong preference for particular species of ants and termites to eat, often rejecting all others. All species drink water regularly, lapping it up with their tongue in a flicking motion.

Pangolins developed special adaptations because of their particular diet. Live insects are caught with their long, pro boscis-like tongue, which is sheathed in a special membrane attached to the pelvis. The tongue is about 27 in (70 cm) long when it is fully extended from its mouth. The tongue remains coiled up in the animal's mouth when at rest. In preparation to catch prey, pangolins will secrete viscous saliva from special glands in the abdomen onto the tongue. When the tongue is darted into the chambers of a mound, the sticky tongue will trap insects living inside. Since they have no teeth, all food is crushed in the lower section of the stomach that leads to the intestines. This area normally contains small pebbles that function to crush food. While eating, thickened membranes protect the eyes of pangolins from insects, and special muscles seal its nostrils and ear openings to shield it from the bites of ants. Ants that reach the scales are often shaken off.

Terrestrial pangolins scrape funnel-shaped holes around a termite hill until they find termites. They do this by using their tail and hind legs as a "tripod," digging with their front feet. With the feet held close to the right and left sides of the head, the claws tear open the insect nest. The snout gradually penetrates the mound. With its long, sticky tongue, the animal catches the insects with fast movements. The termite hill is seldom destroyed completely, so pangolins will return to the same termite hill after the remaining insects have rebuilt the hill. When pangolins locate old animal droppings containing termites, they take the pellets with their forelimbs and turn over onto their backs. They then hold the dropping between their claws above its stomach, and raise their head and lick off the termites. Arboreal pangolins often break up tree nests by anchoring themselves in the branches with their hind legs and prehensile tail. The claws of the forefeet then dig precisely to the left and right of the mouth, which slowly advances into the cavity formed in the nest. The worm-like tongue is constantly stabbing into the narrow passages of the termite nests. Strictly tree-dwelling pangolins hunt and feed only in the nests of arboreal termites, unable to break open the nests of ground termites. They might eat ground termites, however, if another animal has previously opened the nest.

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