Although their outward appearance is reptilian, pangolins are mammals. Pangolins are almost completely covered in overlapping, protective scales, which makes up about 20% of their body weight.

The scales are composed of keratin, the same material that forms human hair and fingernails, and give pangolins an appearance similar to a pinecone or artichoke. The underside of a pangolin is not covered with scales, but sparse fur, instead.