Pangolin Didn’t Kill Itself: For World Pangolin Day 2020

Pangolin Didn’t Kill Itself.

Since news of the novel coronavirus spread late last year, I was struck by claims that the virus originated in snakes and/or bats. In my minds eye I quickly saw the image of a brew in a cauldron, “The eye of a newt and the toe of a frog etc..” This gut reaction led me to consider chemistry and microbiology based upon some folkloric themes.

Snakes and bats have a wide and long history in folklore, and associated in popular culture with poison. Recent studies rebuked claims that Coronavirus was transferred to humans by snakes and/or bats, and instead proposed the missing link is a creature called the Pangolin, in Greek it roughly translates to Horny Scale, in Malay, “something that rolls up”. 

Until this latest theory for the critter responsible for spreading the novel coronavirus to humans, I knew nothing of the Pangolin, and so discovered all manner research papers and physiological attributes that I would like to share (SEE BELOW) I’ve been disappointed with how news channels and organizations cover the outbreak and hope to share at least one fact that will inspire your own research, perhaps write of what you discovered. 

My goal is to get to imagine you have a team of researchers in a laboratory. I don’t think it’s too far off the mark to look at the Pangolin and it’s place in genomic studies and its use in studying the immune system of mammals.  Plus it’s mention in folkloric traditions. Consider that Pangolin scales are in high demand around the world for their flesh and scales, for both eating and for medicine.

The Pangolin is the ONLY scaled mammal in the animal Kingdom, it is noteworthy that it’s scales evolved due to high susceptibility to infection. The armour is a layer of protection when under attack or sleeping. The scales are made of keratin, which human nails and hair are also made, some have said that you can get health benefits by eating toe-nails. The religious-like, toxic belief that certain exotic animal parts will bring good luck, virility and other narcissistic benefits, is a big problem. Pangolin meat is very expensive, and not for the poor working cass.  

Pangolin were not registered as being sold at the Wuhan market, yet witnesses have said that they were bought and sold there, and kept in unhygienic conditions, they are susceptible to infection.
Do a quick search Pangolin + Scholar and browsethe articles. The Pangolin is the number ONE most trafficked critter in the global trade of illegal critters. A quick news search will turn up multiple stories of Pangolin busts on par with drug busts, in their estimated value. Who knew that the critter suspected of being the missing link between spreading the virus between animals and humans was also one of the most sought after critters on the black “exotic pet” market?

To add insult to injury for the innocent anteater, their natural habitat is being destroyed, resulting in species of Pangolin classified critically endangered. This threat of extinction makes the black market thrive.
In Zimbabwe, folk legend says that anybody who kills Pangolin will have bad luck, if only we would have enforced the laws protecting these critters from poaching earlier and kept in step with tribal wisdom.

Although the breakout is sourced to Wuhan, and a specific market place, the bigger picture reveals a global network of players, traffickers, customers and middle-men who make up the supply and demand for Pangolin and other exotic animals. This paper reveals that Germany plays a large role in Pangolin smuggling operations. It seems the Germans have a taste for exotic pets and animals, and a worldwide customer base.

This trafficking must stop immediately for the sake of all critter-kind and for the endangered species. Like trafficking in arms, drugs and sex, the traffick of Pangolin are responsible for a large part of the trouble around the planet today. The greedy don’t care if it’s guns, heroin, teenage-girls or lizards, deregulation helps them thrive.

Studies show the mistreatment of the Pangolin leads to a higher probability of infection, which brings us back to black markets, illegal trafficking and inhumane treatment. The mucous of the Pangolin, and it’s very long tongue, and unique mouth muscles are worthy of study. Their insectivore diet of ants, termites and small worms are processed by the Pangolin, which lead to a deeper understanding of chemical symbiosis.

I sincerely hope a cheap and easy to manufacture vaccine is discovered soon. If indeed, the Pangolin is the culprit, may they be treated with respect and may consideration be given to the link between pandemics and animal trafficking for profit.




“As an evolutionary consequence of being covered by scales, it is plausible that the pangolin immune system evolved differently than in other mammals. For example, genes such as IFNE, a unique interferon exclusively expressed in skin epithelial cells and inner mucosa-protected tisssues (e.g., lung, intestines, and reproductive tissues), establish a first line of defense against pathogens in other placental mammals (Day et al. 2008; Ponten et al. 2008; Xi et al. 2012; Fung et al. 2013; Demers et al. 2014; Uhlen et al. 2015). Interferons (IFNs) are a cluster of highly conserved gene families that encode for cytokines expressed by host cells for communication between cells, leading to the activation of the immune system in the presence of pathogens (De Andrea et al. 2002; Fensterl and Sen 2009). Strikingly, the single copy intronless IFNE gene is pseudogenized in both pangolin species (confirmed by Sanger sequencing; sample size = 8) but is intact in 71 other mammalian species”


Here’s a useful guide on how to help, by way of deep learning.

–Steve Fly

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