Tapirs, of the family Tapiridae, are large, forest-dwelling mammals with a long flexible snout. They are found in tropical South and Central America, and in Southeast Asia. There are four species of tapirs in the single genus, Tapirus. Tapirs are grouped with horses and rhinoceroses in the order Perissodactyla, which are the odd-toed, hoofed mammals. Tapirs have a fourth toe on their front feet. Each toe is covered by a small hoof.
Tapirs have been called “living fossils” because they have existed, apparently with little change, for perhaps 40 million years. The fact that they are found in two widely separated locations (the Neotropics and tropical Asia) is interpreted to have resulted from the breakup of an ancient landmass called Gondwanaland, which split into continents that drifted apart.
The muscular snout of tapirs is developed from the fusion of the upper lip and the nose. It has nostrils at the tip. The end of the snout often dangles down and over the mouth, and is flexible enough to grasp vegetation and pull it toward the mouth. Tapirs browse on leaves and plant shoots. They are solitary animals, and frequent riverbanks. Tapirs are also sometimes found in farm fields, where they can damage crops. Male tapirs mark their territory with sprays of urine.
The largest species is the Malayan or Asian tapir (Tapirus indicus ), which occurs in rainforests of Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand. This species stands 40 in (1 m) tall at the shoulder and may be
more than 8 ft (2.4 m) long, weighing up to 825 lb (375 kg). The Malayan tapir has distinctive coloring, with a solid black body and a bright white saddle around the middle. This pattern helps to conceal the tapir in patches of sun and shade in its rainforest habitat.
Baird’s tapir, or the Central American tapir (T. bairdi ), is found in swampy land in rainforest from Mexico to as far south as Ecuador. The Brazilian tapir (T. terrestris ) is the most abundant of the tapirs and is found in Amazonian South America as far south as Brazil and Peru. Both Baird’s and Brazilian tapirs have a bristly mane that may help deflect the attacks of jaguars, which seize the neck of their prey. The fourth species is the mountain tapir (T. pinchaque ), found in montane forests of the northern Andes Mountains. It is reddish brown in color, and has thick hair to insulate it against the cold temperatures found at such high altitudes. The mountain tapir is the smallest of the four species, measuring less than 6 ft (1.8 m) long and weighing less than 550 lb (250 kg); it is also the rarest of the tapirs.
Tapirs spend a lot of time in streams or lakes, which both cools them and may help dislodge ectoparasites. The Malayan tapir walks on the bottom of rivers rather like a hippopotamus. Female tapirs protect their young from the attacks of caymans and other predators when in the water. On land the main defense of tapirs is to run away, but a cornered tapir will also turn and bite.
Tapirs breed at any time of the year, and their courtship and mating behavior is often accompanied by much noise and squealing. After mating, both sexes resume a solitary life. Female tapirs usually produce a single offspring about every 18 months. The young tapir is born after a gestation period of 390-400 days, and has light-colored stripes and spots on a dark reddish brown background. This protective coloration conceals young tapirs while they lie motionless on the forest floor as their mother feeds elsewhere. The coloring of the young begins to disappear at about two months and is gone by six months. Young tapirs reach sexual maturity at about two or three years of age, and can live for up to 30 years.
Tapirs are often hunted for their meat and hide, but the greatest danger they face today is the loss of their forest habitat. The habitat of all four species is being deforested rapidly, and the populations of all tapirs are declining and becoming fragmented. The mountain tapir and Baird’s tapir are considered endangered species, while the Malayan tapir and the Brazilian tapir are vulnerable (these are designations of the IUCN, the World Conservation Union). Although the mountain tapir is now a protected species, its remote mountain forests are rarely supervised, so it is impossible to control local hunting.
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Jean F. Blashfield