White-bellied pangolins have the second-most chromosomes of any animal.

The pangolin, a strange, scaly animal that looks like a cross between an armadillo and an aardvark, has a lot that scientists don’t know. Now, what UCLA researcher Jen Tinsman calls a “scientific surprise” that highlights how unusual the animal is is revealed in a new paper that was published in the journal Chromosome Research.

The researchers found that the female white-bellied pangolin has 114 chromosomes—more than any vertebrate with the exception of the Bolivian bamboo rodent, which has 118 — and undeniably more than people, who have 46. Other pangolin species have more common quantities of chromosomes, going from 36 to 42.

Another genetic defect was also discovered by the researchers. There are 113 more chromosomes in male white-bellied pangolins than there are in females; males and females share the same number in most species.

“Understanding chromosomes and gene structure is important for conservation because it can influence how we manage populations—if you find significant genetic differences between two groups, you may manage them differently.”

 Ryan Harrigan, an adjunct professor at the UCLA Center for Tropical Research and a co-author of the paper.

“There is nothing like them anywhere in the world; they’re in their own request, their own family,” said Tinsman, a UCLA research individual and co-creator of the review, adding that pangolins’ nearest family members incorporate felines and rhinoceroses.

Tinsman worked on the study with colleagues from UCLA and a number of other international universities, zoos, and research institutions. The goal of the research was to produce information about the genome of the pangolin to support conservation efforts because all four pangolin species are threatened.

One explanation for why little is known about pangolins is that they are famously hard to study. They perform badly when held captive. Only a few zoos have been able to successfully house them. They are difficult to find in the wild, and the technology that scientists use to monitor other species frequently fails to catch pangolins because the animals sometimes rub radio tags out of their scales by climbing trees.

The fact that the animals dig and consume ants, termites, and other insects with their long tongues is what researchers do know about them. Some species, like the white-bellied variety, inhabit tree trunks and branches to live underground. Burrows are home to some. When undermined, pangolins twist into a ball. (Lions have been known to bat them around, uncertain how else to manage them.)

The white-bellied species is generally small, tipping the scales at three or four pounds and measuring under a foot long, while some ground pangolins develop to 80 or 90 pounds, about the size of an enormous canine.

With a heap of pangolin scales, co-director of the Congo Basin Institute Tom Smith This magnificent animal we’re hunting to annihilation.” Credit: Tom Smith

Beside its logical worth, the examination has made an important hereditary asset to help protection endeavors, particularly endeavors to control poaching, which is the essential explanation for why the creatures are imperiled. Pangolins’ scales are wrongfully sold in global business sectors for use in customary medication from Nigeria to China. They are also hunted for their meat, which is sold locally for about $10 each, or for exotic meals in faraway places, where they can fetch over $1,000 on international markets.

Tinsman stated, “I’ve seen pangolin scales trafficked alongside guns, fake IDs, and drugs.” The issue stretches out as far as possible, up to significant global criminal organizations.”

Identifying which pangolin species are the sources of products derived from the animals could be made easier with the aid of genomics. Besides, the data could assist preservationists and scientists with understanding contrasts inside animal categories whose living spaces cover 6 million square kilometers (2.3 million square miles) and 23 nations.

Ryan Harrigan, a co-author of the paper who is an adjunct professor at the UCLA Center for Tropical Research, stated, “Understanding chromosomes and the structure of genes is important for conservation.” If you find significant genetic differences between two groups, you might manage them differently because it can determine how we manage populations.

Tom Smith, an evolutionary biologist at UCLA and one of the study’s co-authors, said, “This paper is a great example of how a study focused on saving a critical endangered species can also advance fundamental science.”

also the other way around. Research findings are increasingly likely to yield practical applications in the months and years following their discovery due to the rapid development of conservation technologies and methods.

As new conservation techniques like environmental DNA, or eDNA, and technologies like artificial intelligence are developed and refined, the new findings could be especially useful in this instance.

The concentrate likewise upholds more extensive work to track and guide pangolin poaching by the Congo Bowl Establishment, a joint drive of UCLA and the Worldwide Organization of Tropical Farming. The foundation, of which Smith is a co-chief, is situated in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and incorporates two rainforest field stations.

Smith stated that similar genomic research is planned to preserve other pangolin species. “It’s this delightful creature that we’re hunting to extinction, which just makes me really sad,” he said.

More information: Marlys L. Houck et al, Chromosome-length genome assemblies and cytogenomic analyses of pangolins reveal remarkable chromosome counts and plasticity, Chromosome Research (2023). DOI: 10.1007/s10577-023-09722-y

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