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Eating Habits Offer Clues to Protecting the Heavily Poached Pangolin

Pluto the Pangolin. (Photo courtesy of Josh DiPaola)

Professor Joshua Plotnik (GC/Hunter, Psychology) is a comparative psychologist specializing in the evolution of behavior and cognition in non-primate animals. He’s also the principal investigator for the Comparative Cognition for Conservation Lab, which aims to help save threatened species by learning more about how they think and behave. Plotnik has researched elephant behavior as a tool for mitigating conflict between animals and humans in Asia, and he recently co-authored a paper on pangolins, which are among the world’s most endangered animals. 

Pangolins are unique nocturnal creatures, the only mammals covered with scales. Those scales are prized in Asia as an unproven remedy for various ailments. As a result, pangolins are the most heavily trafficked animals on the planet. 

Pangolins have also been mentioned as a possible — but unconfirmed — link to infection for COVID-19. “We cite studies in the paper that suggest pangolins could have been a vector species for the virus (possibly between bats and humans),” Plotnik said in an email. “Regardless of the virus's origin, this pandemic highlights the need to not only protect endangered species but also to reevaluate our impacts (both positive and negative) on the natural world. The illegal wildlife trade is not only wrong from an ethical perspective, it is clear that it can also have extremely damaging effects on human health.”

Plotnik was senior author on the published research, but he’s quick to credit the paper’s first author, Josh DiPaola, who recently earned his master’s degree from Hunter’s Animal Behavior and Conservation Program. DiPaola spent months in Thailand setting up the study, the first-ever controlled experiment on the foraging behaviors of Sunda pangolins. Sundas are one of eight pangolin species and they’re listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Learning about their behavior is essential for conservation efforts. “Ironically, at this point, poachers have much more knowledge about pangolins in the wild than do conservationists,” DiPaola said in an interview with Hunter College. The study tested the pangolin’s ability to find food using olfactory cues, visual cues, and acoustic cues. Results suggest that they rely on scent trails to hunt the termites and ants that make up their diet. 

"The COVID-19 pandemic highlights a crucial need to look beyond the charisma of endangered species when deciding which animals deserve the field of conservation’s attention," the authors wrote. "It is vital that we work to better understand wildlife behaviour and ecology through research across scientific disciplines, even when focal species are difficult to study or lack popular or political attention. Although it is still unknown whether the pangolin acted as a vector for the coronavirus between wildlife and humans, what is clear is that the illegal wildlife trade and the increasing physical contact between wildlife and humans pose an existential threat not only to biodiversity in general, but also to our own existence as a species.”

Submitted on: AUG 3, 2020

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