Tracking a pangolin pup
I have been lucky enough to have seen more than my fair share of pangolin pups during my time at Tswalu Kalahari. Young pangolins leave their mothers to begin navigating the world on their own when they are aged between four and ten months. Research for my PhD was focused on adult pangolins, but I always wondered what happened to the pups. Where did they go? How far did they move? Did they survive? To answer some of these questions, PhD student Valery Phakoago and I tagged a 7-month old, 2.5 kg pangolin pup with a miniature VHF tracking transmitter in early 2021. This was made possible by the University of the Witwatersrand and the Tswalu Foundation. Tagging a pangolin pup was a first for Tswalu Kalahari and the excitement was apparent as our research team anxiously waited to see when the youngster would head off on its own.
Two weeks later, the young animal began to disperse, which is when a pup leaves its natal home range and does not return. We located the study animal in the dunes about 3.5 km from its natal home range, where it remained for the next six months. The pup foraged in the late afternoons, much earlier in the day than its mother, and did not venture more than a few hundred metres each day, making it relatively easy to keep track of it.
After six months, the pup decided to challenge our research team a bit more! Now stronger (weighing 5kg), the pup began a second dispersal event – this time heading straight for the Korannaberg mountains. The terrain was tricky for us to navigate, but did not seem to deter the pangolin pup. It appeared to have no problem climbing over rocks on its hind legs. It was previously thought that pangolins living in the reserve’s hilly areas most likely traversed through the valleys to get to the other side of the Korannaberg mountains. However, to our research team’s surprise, the pup journeyed straight over the highest points of some of the hills, finding refuge amongst rocks and dense vegetation when needed.
A few days after some impressive mountain climbing, the pup located a termite mound deep in the hills, which it excavated and used as a refuge for several weeks while foraging in the area late in the afternoons. It then moved on, continuing to explore mountain peak after peak, and it is now nestled in a different termite mound, approximately 12 km (straight-line distance) from its natal home range.
Our research team is excited to see what the pup does next and we will continue to monitor it for as long as possible. The data emanating from the pup’s movements highlight the importance of the mountainous terrain as potential habitat for ground pangolins in the southern Kalahari. Our team hopes to be able to tag additional pangolin pups in the future to obtain more fascinating data on pangolin pups on the move.
About the author
Dr Wendy Panaino is the project manager for the Tswalu Foundation’s Kalahari Endangered Ecosystem Project (KEEP), based at Tswalu Kalahari. While conducting research for her PhD, Wendy learnt about the diet, activity, and body temperature patterns of Temminck’s pangolins. Having spent many nights observing these scaly anteaters, she has learnt a lot more about one of the world’s most secretive mammals.
All images of the tagged pangolin pup by Marcus Westberg.
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