Pangolins: record-breaking numbers of chromosomes and victims of poaching

Pangolins are animals that are a cross between anteaters and armadillos. They live in Africa and Southeast Asia, eat termites and ants, are covered with hard scales, and in case of danger they curl up into a ball, hiding their soft belly and muzzle. Although pangolins are unique animals, they are threatened with imminent extinction by poaching. Pangolin scales and meat are used in “traditional medicine,” kitchens, and magical practices of some Asian and African peoples.

To combat poaching, scientists are conducting genetic analyses of pangolins. One of them turned out to have a near-record number of chromosomes. Biologists at the University of California counted 113 or 114 chromosomes in these animals, depending on sex. This difference turned out to be another very unexpected finding, made by the authors of a paper published in the journal Chromosome Research.

Pangolins hold the record for the number of chromosomes. The white-bellied pangolins Phataginus tricuspis have as many as 114 chromosomes. This is a record for a large group of Laurasiaceae, the placentals originating from the ancient continent of Eurasia, which includes all ungulates, cetaceans, and carnivores. Even more unexpected was the fact that the males of P. tricuspis had one less chromosome. Such a phenomenon is extremely rare. Most likely, it is related to the fact that the small male chromosome once fused with one of the normal (non-sex) chromosomes.

As scientists point out, genetic analysis of pangolins makes it possible to find the sources and pathways of killed animals, trace populations, and so on. However, the study of pangolins is complicated by the fact that their scales are constantly falling off and being replaced, and the animals rub against tree trunks, brushing off the old ones. Any “beacon” attached to the body quickly falls off. Breeding them in captivity is also extremely difficult, and they are rare in the wild.

Pangolins continue to bring surprises to scientists who manage to study them. Their genetic diversity can help preserve these unique animals and fight poaching.

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