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SUERC- Ecology and conservation of pangolin using stable isotope forensics

College of Science and Engineering

Friday, January 08, 2021 Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

The giant ground pangolin (Smutsia gigantea) of the African lowland rainforest and savanna gallery forests is one of the world’s least studied animals. It is the largest pangolin species, weighing over 30kg, like other pangolin is myrmecophagous, providing an important ecosystem service as a regulator of social insect populations. Knowledge of pangolin is hampered by their predominantly nocturnal lifestyle, their use of a complex system of deep inaccessible burrows, and further, their jeopardy by poaching and trafficking. We know little about their movements and population sizes, and our lack of knowledge about their ecology hinders our efforts to protect them. This PhD position will exploit technical advances in stable isotope analysis to provide long-sought data on the ecology and life history of giant pangolins.

Pangolins are the only mammals with overlapping keratinous scales covering the body as dermal armour. The intensifying demand for harvested pangolin scales is driven by their use in traditional medicines in Asia and to some extent in Africa. Now that the IUCN lists all four Asian pangolin species as endangered or critically endangered, intensive poaching has increased in the four vulnerable and decreasing African species, with 46.8t of scales being confiscated in the first half of 2019. The large size and slow reproductive rate of S. gigantea, renders it particularly susceptible to poaching pressure. The spiraling threat to pangolins underlines the urgency for developing analytic approaches that can help antipoaching efforts as well as clarify pangolin ecology.

This PhD position aims to develop a groundbreaking method that would provide governments with rapid and accurate tools of habitat conservation, and improve wildlife crime forensic science in general. The research promises to facilitate the identification of the geographic origin of confiscated scales, along with greater knowledge of habitat resource preferences and life history traits for S. gigantea, all of which are essential for the conservation management of this species.

The project has two main objectives, both driven by stable isotope analysis (SIA): 1.) to address knowledge gaps in the ecology of S. gigantea, and 2.) to exploit the potential of stable isotope methods to forensically identify the geographic origin of confiscated pangolin scales.

The student will work with ANPN’s Wildlife Capture Unit (WCU) to capture and GPS-tag pangolins from Gabonese parks. The WCU comprises experienced ecoguards, master trackers, a field biologist and a wildlife veterinarian. During capture, all individuals will be measured, weighed, sexed, and samples for SIA will be collected. In addition, to bolster stable isotope modelling, prey items and environmental (plant) samples will be collected around capture locations.
After tagging, GPS spatial data can clarify life expectancy, territoriality and home-range size, daily path lengths, distance travelled and reproductive behaviours. Furthermore, SIA of keratinous scales provides dietary and/or environmental information about the animal at the time of keratin deposition. Conventional dietary analysis methods, e.g. the analysis of stomach contents, are at best invasive methods and offer only a “snapshot” of what an animal is eating at one time. SIA can apportion the dietary items that a pangolin eats, whilst simultaneously indicating how much time an animal spends in different habitats (e.g. savannah vs. forest). Thus SIA offers a non-destructive method of dietary analysis. Further, high-resolution subsampling of scales may provide information on ontogenetic habitat or dietary changes in individual animals. The student will develop sampling protocols to minimize sample mass and maximise temporal resolution along each scale.

In addition to defining ecological parameters, SIA has been used in other species and their products (e.g. elephant ivory) to identify location. Generally, confiscated pangolin material is in the form of large quantities of scales, which are difficult to identify to species, never mind location. Development of a method to identify the location of scale mixtures would allow targeted conservation measures.
A database of stable isotope compositions of pangolin from known locations (starting with Gabonese locations) will allow us to determine origin from confiscated scales of unknown origin. This is based on isotopic gradients associated with latitude (2H and 18O) savannah-forest and humidity (13C and 15N) coastal proximity (34S and  2H) and bedrock geology (34S). Project data will support ANPN conservation action plans and environmental policies.

Start Date

1st October 2021

Funding Notes

How to Apply: Applications should go to IAPETUS and also the University of Glasgow portal: .

Funding is available to cover tuition fees for UK/EU applicants, as well as paying a stipend at the Research Council rate (2020/21 rate is £15,285/annum). International students: See


UK/European Union candidates: where a candidate from another EU country has not been resident in the UK for 3 years or more prior to the commencement of their studies with IAPETUS2, they will only be eligible for a fees-only studentship.
International students: See

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