With the exception of the underside, it is covered in extremely hard scales. When threatened, it usually will roll up into a ball to protect the vulnerable belly. The scales on the tail can also be used as blades to slash at attackers.
The Ground Pangolin can grow to a length of about 1 metre, with the tail typically between 30 and 50 cm. It has a disproportionately small head, powerful hindlegs, and small forelegs. Walking is done almost entirely on the backlegs with the heavy dragging tail acting as a counterweight.
Like other pangolin species, it is largely nocturnal, although it is also entirely terrestrial and usually found in savanna or open woodland, generally feeding on termites or ants. It is well adapted to this, with a very long (up to 50 cm) sticky tongue which is stored inside a pocket in the mouth until needed. Although it is capable of digging its own burrow, it prefers to occupy disused holes dug by a Warthog or an Aardvark or to lie in dense vegetation, making it even more difficult to observe.
This animal was named for the Dutch zoologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck.
The physical appearance of pangolins is marked by large, hardened, plate-like scales. The scales, which are soft on newborn pangolins but harden as the animal matures, are made of keratin, the same material of which human fingernails and tetrapod claws are made. The pangolin is often compared to a walking pine cone or globe artichoke. It can curl up into a ball when threatened, with its overlapping scales acting as armour and its face tucked under its tail. The scales are razor-sharp, providing extra defence. The front claws are so long they are unsuited for walking, so the animal walks with its fore paws curled over to protect them. Pangolins can also emit a noxious-smelling acid from glands near the anus, similar to the spray of a skunk. They have short legs, with sharp claws which they use for burrowing into termite and ant mounds, as well as climbing.
Gestation is 120–150 days. Females usually give birth to a single offspring at a time. Weight at birth is 80–450 g (3–18 ounces). The young cling to the mother's tail as she moves about. Weaning takes place at around three months of age, and pangolins become sexually mature at two years.
Pangolins are hunted and eaten in many parts of Africa, and are one of the more popular types of bush meat. They are also in great demand in China because their meat is considered a delicacy and some Chinese believe pangolin scales reduce swelling, promote blood circulation and help breast-feeding women produce milk. In November 2010, pangolins were added to the Zoological Society of London's list of genetically distinct and endangered mammals.
Pangolin populations have suffered from illegal trafficking. In May 2007, for example, 31 pangolins were found aboard an abandoned vessel off the coast of China. The boat contained some 5,000 endangered animals.