Posted on February 16, 2019, 11:49:18 PM by Jubal
An Unexpected Bestiary: The Pangolin Parchment
Long tailed pangolin, Image: US Fish & Wildlife Service, via Wikimedia Commons.In this special issue of An Unexpected Bestiary for World Pangolin Day, we're looking a my favourite scaly friendbeasts, the pangolins!An Intro to PangolinsTo begin with, a recap of what pangolins are is probably in order. They’re an unusual order of scaly mammals, the pholidota (from the Greek pholis, for a scale). Whilst sometimes confused with armadillos, pangolins are an old world order living in Africa and southern Asia, and their characteristic scales overlap much like scale armour, whereas armadillo scales form hard bands of nodes around their body. There are eight living species of pangolin, and at least one known extinct species: the smallest tree-living pangolins like the Long Tailed Pangolin of central Africa weigh just a kilogram or two, whereas their southern African cousins, the Giant Pangolins, live in burrows and can be over thirty kilograms – about twenty percent of that weight being in the hard suit of armour.
The English name of the pangolin comes from the Malay pengguling, or “the one who rolls up” – indicating another of their best known abilities, rolling into a ball so that their scales form an impenetrable wall on all sides to protect them from predators. That’s not all they can do though; their hefty claws can dig or tear apart pretty solid obstacles (such as termite mounds). They have no teeth, but eat stones to help grind up food in their stomach and have very long tongues to help satisfy their insect-eating diet, so much so that the root of the tongue muscle is planted deep in the animal’s body rather than at the back of the mouth. Their strong prehensile tails help balance them for upright walking, allow them to hang from tree branches, or even let them walk up a tree solely on their hind legs, claws gripping the bark and tail providing balance. Finally, in case the scales aren’t enough, they can emit a noxious scent in a similar manner to a skunk.
Human interactions with pangolins are the main subject of news on them nowadays, for the simple reason that we’re wiping them out, despite their impressive evolutionary defence arsenal. Huge demand for pangolin scales and meat as a miracle cure or aphrodisiac has driven massive levels of hunting, and pangolins often die rapidly in captivity from stress, with techniques for captive populations only starting to evolve in very recent years as conservationists desperately study how to ensure some survive the attentions of poachers. But why are pangolins seen as such a potential asset, and why are people so willing to believe in their magical properties? This fascination has long been apparent; the four Asian pangolin species are in the genus Manis, which Linnaeus in the 1790s named after the Manes, spirits of the dead in Roman mythology. The answer may in part lie in the extent to which the pangolin defies classification: scaly but mammalian, some arboreal and some ground-living, plodding along on two or four feet, it’s little wonder that they have frequently been ascribed otherworldly properties.
Pangolins live in various habitats, from jungle to near desert.Myths and LegendsIn various southern African mythologies, the pangolin seems to have a range of associations with the sky, luck, and fortune. The Sangu of Tanzania traditionally believed that pangolins fall down to earth from the sky, and select a particular human, whose village then performs various rituals which ultimately involve the pangolin being sacrificed. An interesting Sangu story involves a chief who turned into a living tree during the day, but ‘separated’ into a human and a pangolin at night, until his wife killed the pangolin, keeping the chief in human form. A number of South African tribes likewise believe that pangolins come from the sky but during thunderstorms specifically, and several also believe that pangolins will bring luck to the person they appear to. From further north in Africa, meanwhile, the pangolin is a cunning creature – a recorded Ba-Kwiri story has a pangolin, Kulu, beating an antelope, Kawe, in a running race by posting a hundred of its friends along the route, having each one appearing fresh when the last tired – the gazelle, unable to tell them apart, tired out far sooner and was unable to prove the deception.
Another common thread is the idea of pangolins having hidden characteristics or power; Malay and Sri Lankan folklore apparently holds that pangolins can kill an elephant by biting its feet, then coiling itself around the elephant’s trunk to suffocate it. In some Malay myths, this is extended, and some kinds of banyan or "jawi-jawi" tree are apparently avoided by the elephants altogether for fear of the pangolins which leave their stench their (which given their ability to produce noxious sprays may not be a stupid move on the pachyderms' part). Another hidden power link is the obvious association of these burrowing animals with the earth. The central African Mbuti, according to one paper, held that pangolins if angered could drag humans down to the underworld through their burrows, which is a fascinating idea of the pangolin having hidden power. Some Chinese folklore apparently holds that pangolins can travel right round the world with a network of subterranean tunnels that they create, and one Chinese name for the pangolin, "the animal that digs through the mountain", reflects this story.
Finally, it's worth noting that as much as some of us may love pangolins, they aren't universally beneficial in folklore. In some South African cultures they bring bad rather than good luck, and it's often considered taboo to touch or eat them due to their supposed mystical properties. Among cultures that sacrifice pangolins,it is often a ritual done with great care: the Sepedi never kill pangolins during the rainy season for fear of causing a drought. The Tswana, meanwhile, have one of the mouse interestingly gruesome pangolin myths, believing that you must never carry a captured pangolin in a sack over your shoulder, or it will use its long tongue to suck your brain out through the ears. Otherworldly mystery, to say the least, isn't always friendly. Pangolins as inspirationWe've just scratched the surface of the world’s pangolin folklore, but gives a great starting point for thinking about the pangolin if you’d like to use them in settings, writing, games, and so on. Some good hooks; firstly, pangolins have value in magic and belief, and less scrupulous characters are likely to want to make use of that whether or not you actually impart the pangolins of your setting with power. There’s a good chance either way that pangolin-related potions may (sadly) be existent in your setting – possibly even pangolin-scale armour, too, though to me either of those feels rather like unicorn blood in that there’s something unsettling and taboo about killing such a creature.
If you have regular pangolins as we have in our world in your setting, they're no particular threat to humanoid characters, though you could certainly over-emphasise some of their physical characteristics to make them more of an issue in that regard rather than them just being a helpless (to humans) hunting target. Even if not as a threat, just emphasising the pangolin scales and their defensive powers could be interesting. On the other hand, if you wanted to make a really large and more potentially aggressive pangolin, then a metre or two long pangolin could be pretty scary with a mix of horrifically noxious sprays and hefty claws as well as the razor-sharp edges of its scales. The toughness of pangolin claws would be a fun thing to emphasise with regular size pangolins too - having one break out of a supposedly secure box or enclosure just by tunnelling out through some concrete would be a fun move to pull.
A tricky question when it comes to the Kawe and Kulu story and things like it is how much sapience you want to give pangolins in fantastical settings. My recommendation is "not too much" - it's easy to end up writing pangolin-people instead of pangolins, which are also fine but are quite a different thing to be working on. I think in some ways it may ruin the enigma as well if you go down that route. An important part of the pangolin feeling magical is the mystical nature of it as a creature, so even if you want pangolins to have meaningful interactions and understand humans to an extent then I wouldn't go as far as making them just another speaking 'civilised' race for the most part (though I suspect one could work out some good exceptions to that!)
Sky-shaker, or down underground? Photo: USFWSThe sky and earth associations in different cultures are both good options if you want to actually give magic to a pangolin, which is the other option for rebalancing them vis-a-vis sapient species: having them rattle their scales to call down thunder, or be a strange two-part organism with a human like in Sangu legend, or give them some sort of exceptional thinking/cunning reputation, could work well. Having them as deliverers of luck can be a nice simple use too, especially for gaming purposes where that can be a pretty mechanically simple way of showing the type of setting you're building. The idea of them providing passage to the underworld is equally intriguing (especially if combined with Linnaeus naming them after spirits of the dead); in the Mbuti myths they only do it when angered, but what if your lead character actually wanted pangolins to provide access to hidden passageways? The idea of pangolins ‘adopting’ and following humans as some of the southern African cultures suggest makes them an interesting possibility for a familiar, though their stress around unfamiliar humans and general enigmatic self-reliance make them a much less friendly and easy choice than some more standard companion animals.
ConclusionThere's so much more to be written about pangolins in folklore and their storytelling potential: most of what I've read has been scattered studies from across Africa, so Asian pangolin folklore has been dealt with pretty lightly here and if I find more good resources on it then I may have to do some more writing in future. The pangolin is an animal I've found captivating for many years now, and I hope from this brief little introduction you can start to see why. Happy World Pangolin Day, and let's hope our scaled friends are with us to inspire us for many, many more to come. Thankyou so much for reading!
You can read part one of the regular An Unexpected Bestiary
, part two here
, and part three here
If you enjoyed this article, please donate a bit to the IUCN pangolin specialist group
whose work is vital to keeping Pangolins around.