The ground pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) is an inconspicuous, primarily nocturnal mammal and is one of four pangolin species found in Africa. It is the only pangolin species that inhabits arid environments in the southern African region. These areas, where hotter and drier periods are predicted, may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Hotter and drier climate can lead to increased heat gained from the environment and increased water requirements. It can also indirectly affect the physiology and behaviour of the pangolins by affecting prey availability. Wendy Panaino is doing research on the pangolin in the Kalahari, South Africa, as part of her PhD. She is measuring body temperatures of pangolins in an already hot and dry region, using miniature implanted temperature data loggers. She is also observing pangolin behaviour and monitoring their diet and the availability of ants and termites in their habitat.
The first response of an animal to a changing environment is likely to be a behavioural one. Many animals seek microhabitats to buffer themselves from changes in the macroclimate. Burrows offer an important refuge to pangolins as temperatures inside burrows remain relatively stable. Pangolins are primarily nocturnal and remain in burrows most of the day. They may however shift the timing of their activity to avoid high temperatures during summer, and increase their diurnal activity during winter to avoid cold exposure. If conditions become hotter and drier than they are now, pangolins may have to adjust their activity and feeding patterns in response to changes in activity and availability of prey species.
Ground pangolins may not have the ability to evolve through changes in their genotype or shift their range quickly enough in the face of a rapidly changing climate. Dependence on behavioural or physiological plasticity may thus be vital if pangolins are to survive the predicted changes in environmental conditions. Hence, investigating the driving factors influencing the ecophysiology and behaviours of pangolins at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve will help our understanding of how pangolins might respond to climate change throughout their range.