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On Toothlessness

On Toothlessness

Author: Bittu Sahgal

Notice something a little out of place in this image? If you look closely, you will see a spiral-bound notebook and GPS in the frame. The photographer had just set down the gear which he was using to conduct a swamp survey when the pangolin scampered into view! Photo: Suhas Hegde.

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.

Author: Bittu Sahgal, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 8, August 2015.


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