On toothlessness

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 35 No. 8, August 2015

By Bittu Sahgal

Seen at full pelt, this Indian pangolin Manis crassicaudata is as toothless as they come. But it has an enormous sticky tongue, which, believe it or not, is almost as long as its body. Why? Because it makes a living poking its tongue into other species’ businesses… primarily termites, of which it may consume between 50 and 70 million in a good year!

Such eyebrow-raising facts have always fascinated me. Which is why I continually entertain myself by delving into encyclopedias, research papers and tomes, to ferret out nuggets of natural history information that make all of us at Sanctuary go: “Really? That can’t be true?”, or “That’s incredible!”… or versions thereof.

Pangolins, by the way, are the only mammals that have scales made from keratin (identical to your nails). The scales are so tough and ingeniously arranged that even tigers and lions generally give up trying to tear them apart once the toothless ones roll into a tight ball.

This particular pangolin was photographed in the wildest wilds of the Bhedti-Aghanashini Conservation Reserve in Uttar Kannada, Karnataka. As it gallops away into its leaf-littered emerald home, it probably realises that ancient evolutionary defence strategies are no use against deadly humans. Quite apart from hacking its forest home, we catch, kill and sell pangolins to insecure, delusional men in China and Indonesia who imagine health and virility can be theirs by consuming pangolin meat! This makes pangolins the most trafficked mammals on our Earth.

Evolutionary toothlessness worked wonders for pangolins, whose future ironically is threatened by a retinue of toothless (and spineless) officials and politicians who refuse to lift a finger to protect 
the natural world in which virtually every life now lies threatened.

P. S. There is one thing that men sort of have in common with pangolins. They both pee standing up. Just thought you might like to know!

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