The physical appearance of a pangolin is marked by large, hardened, overlapping 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’s scaled body is comparable to a 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 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. Pangolins, though, are not able to spray this acid as skunks do.
They have short legs, with sharp claws which they use for burrowing into termite and ant mounds, as well as climbing.
The size of pangolins varies by species, ranging from 30 to 100 centimetres (12 to 39 in). Females are generally smaller than males.
The tongues of pangolins are extremely elongated and extend into the abdominal cavity.
By convergent evolution, pangolins, the giant anteater, and the tube-lipped nectar bat all have tongues that are not attached to their hyoid bone and extend past their pharynx deep into the thorax. This extension lies between the sternum and the trachea.
Large pangolins can extend their tongues as much as 40 centimetres (16 in), with a diameter of only 0.5 centimetres (0.20 in).