Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
bairdii (Baird's or Central American)
terrestris (lowland or Brazilian)
pinchaque (mountain or woolly)
Body length: largest—Malayan tapir, up to 8 feet long; smallest—mountain tapir, up to 6 feet long
Shoulder height: 2.5 to 3.5 feet (0.8 to 1 meter), depending on species
Weight: 550 to 700 pounds (250 to 320 kilograms), depending on species
Life span: 30 years
Gestation: 13 to 14 months
Number of young at birth: 1 (twins are rare)
Weight at birth: 15 to 22 pounds (7 to 10 kilograms)
Age at maturity: 2 to 4 years
Conservation status: all four species of tapir are endangered
Fossils of tapir ancestors have been found on every continent
except Antarctica. Tapirs even lived in Southern California about 10,000
years ago! Some scientists believe that this is evidence for the existence
of the supercontinent called Gondwanaland in the distant past.
April, a Baird's tapir, is the National Animal of Belize. Also known as "the mountain cow," she lives at the Belize Zoo and her birthday is a national event.
In Indonesia, the word badak refers to both rhinos and tapirs.
In Thailand, P'som-sett is the name for tapir and it means "mixture is finished." This refers to the belief that the tapir was created from leftover parts of other animals.
The word "tapir," translated from a Brazilian Indian language, means "thick," referring to the animal's tough hide.
- New Year, New Tapir
- Tapir Tales
- Caring for Cats and a Tapir
- Tapir Calf Still Needs Mom
- Tapir Calf Update
- Tapir Calf Takes the Plunge!
Listen to a Malayan tapir!
Odds and ends make a magnificent beast
Zoo visitors often ask, "What is it? A pig? An anteater?" No, it's a tapir, a primitive animal that has remained unchanged for millions of years. The four species of tapirs are most closely related to horses and rhinos, since each toe ( four toes on each front foot, three on each back foot) has its own separate hoof. The nose and upper lip are combined into a flexible snout like an elephant's trunk, which tapirs can use to reach and pull plant material into the mouth. Their eyes and ears are small and their bodies are teardrop shaped: tapered in the front and wider at the rear.
Baird's tapir Tapirus bairdii — native to Mexico and Central America. Its coat is dark red-brown to black as an adult and it has white ear fringes.
Brazilian tapir Tapirus terrestris — native to South America from Colombia to Paraguay and Brazil. The Brazilian tapir's coat is dark on the animal's back and lighter on the underside. It prefers living where it's warm, rainy, and humid. Crocodilians as well as jaguars are natural predators for this tapir species.
Mountain tapir Tapirus pinchaque — lives in the Andes Mountains of northern South America. It is the smallest of the four tapir species and has a thick coat and undercoat to keep the animal warm in its cold mountain home.
Malayan tapir Tapirus indicus — the only tapir from Asia, found in Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It has a distinctive coat pattern: black in the front and white in the back. This acts as camouflage by breaking up the tapir's body outline in the shade of the forest. Tigers are the Malayan tapir's main natural predators.
Growing up tapir
A single tapir baby, called a calf, is born after a 13-month gestation period. Even though there are differences in habitat and geography, all tapir calves look like brown and beige striped watermelons on legs. This color pattern is great camouflage for the youngsters in the dappled sunlight of the forest, especially when the calf lies down on the ground. Calves begin to lose these markings after a few months, and when the youngster is about six months old it looks like a miniature adult. It reaches full size in about 18 months but is mature at 2 to 4 years.
Young tapirs will nurse as long as the mother provides milk. For many years it was believed that tapirs lived solitary lives in the wild, except for mothers raising young or a male and female that come together during breeding season. Recently, scientists have discovered that tapirs often graze in pairs or small groups, traveling over larger ranges than previously thought.
A tapir is both a browser and a grazer! Using its incredible nose like a finger, the tapir can pluck leaves from tree branches or root around in the soft underbrush for fallen fruit to dine on. The tapir can use its flexible nose to explore a circle of ground 1 foot (30 centimeters) in diameter without having to move its head! In the wild, tapirs eat a variety of different plants. This diet gives them an important role in the ecology of their forest home: seeds passing through their digestive tract help reseed for a new generation of plants. Tapirs are nocturnal, so that impressive nose is useful for finding food. At the San Diego Zoo, the tapirs are fed a variety of vegetables and browse. Bananas and apples are offered as special treats.
Tapirs can communicate in a number of ways. A high-pitched whistle is one of the most common tapir vocalizations: it sounds like car brakes screeching to a halt! A snort with foot stamping usually means the tapir is preparing to defend itself. Urine marking is another important nonverbal signal and tapirs mark paths through the forest in this way, sniffing along their route and identifying other tapirs in the area.
A daily dip
All species of tapirs prefer wooded or grassy areas with places to shelter during the day and a lake, river, or pond for taking a dip at night. Tapirs like to spend a lot of time in the water, eating aquatic plants, cooling off, or washing away skin parasites. They can stay under the water for several minutes. Even youngsters are able to swim when just a few days old. When frightened, tapirs can take to the water and breathe with their snout poked above the surface like a snorkel.
Humans hunt all tapir species for their meat and hides. And as humans clear the tapirs' habitats for farming, the animals' food supply decreases. Efforts are under way in Central and South America to protect tapir habitat and use the different tapir species as a flagship species to encourage tourism (like Australia does with its koalas and China does with its pandas). This can provide jobs other than farming and logging for the local people and inspire them to help in the protection of this intriguing animal.