20+ Interesting Facts About Tapirs

  1. Tapirs are large, herbivorous mammals that belong to one of the three branches of odd-toed ungulates.
  2. Tapirs are the only living member of their family. They have four recognized species in Central America, South America, and Southeast Asia.
  3. The heavy bodies and short legs in tapirs make them look like pigs, while their protruding nose is slightly similar to the trunk of elephants. However, their closest extant relatives are horses, zebras, rhinos, and other odd-toed ungulates.
  4. Apart from elephants, tapirs are the only living vertebrates that possess a prehensile (capable of grasping) trunk. Compared to elephants, they have a short proboscis, an extension of the nose and upper lip. (Source)
  5. Tapirs have poor eyesight and monocular vision (see with a single eye at a time). These nocturnal mammals compensate for this deficiency through their strong senses of smell and hearing. Captive tapirs, particularly Malayan tapirs, often have corneal cloudiness due to excessive exposure to light in their unnatural environment.
  6. The oldest known fossil of tapirs is more than 54 million years old. Paleontologists discovered the pair of fossils from western India in 2016. Researchers believe tapirs and other odd-toed ungulates originated in Asia and later migrated to other parts of the world. They moved to western North America through the Bering Land Bridge two million years later. (Source)
  7. Experts have recognized more than 15 extinct species of tapirs. These species were present in North America, Europe, and Asia. The biggest ever tapir had the size of a mid-size rhino and was present in East Asia. It is a possibility that Baird’s tapirs were initially present in North America and later moved to settle in Central America and northern parts of South America. (Source
    Range map of Baird's tapirs
    Baird's tapirs migrated from North to Central America

  8. South American tapirs are vulnerable, while the status of all the other species is endangered, according to the IUCN Red List. Their major threats are hunting for meat and leather and habitat destruction due to deforestation.
  9. Tapirs have four toes on the front and three on the hind feet. However, the fourth digits on the front feet are small and do not touch the ground. The structure of their body puts the most weight on the third toe. Their splayed toes and plantigrade foot posture assist them in walking on soft muddy ground.
  10. Unlike other animals, camera traps do not provide valuable information about tapirs because they lack individual markings. However, the digits and footpads of each tapir are unique, and scientists identify them by analyzing their separate footprints in their habitat. (Source)
  11. Malayan tapir of Southeast Asia is the largest of all tapirs, while the mountain (or Andean) tapir is the smallest species. The other two tapir species are Baird’s (or Central America) tapir and the South American tapir.
  12. Three tapir species in the Americas have brown to black coats, while Malayan tapirs have white bodies and black legs and heads. Mountain tapirs have wooly coats with under-fur to withstand the cold Andean climate. Newborn tapirs of all species have white dots and horizontal stripes to camouflage in their habitat. They lose this protection after about six months.
  13. Tapirs have 42 to 44 teeth that lack dental cement (necessary to resist bite pressure) due to their soft vegetation diet. However, these teeth are sharp and strong, and the animal uses them to defend against predators.
  14. Like most odd-toed ungulates, female tapirs are larger than males. Female tapirs usually reproduce every two years. They give birth to a single calf after 13 months of gestation. Baby tapir stays with its mother for up to 18 months.
  15. Tapirs generally live for 25 to 30 years in the wild. The oldest known tapir (a captive Malayan tapir) was born in 1978 and lived for over 41 years.
  16. Tapirs are good swimmers and use water to retreat from predators. Sometimes, they also defecate inside water to hide the scent. They can dive deeper and use their trunks as snorkels.
  17. Tapirs are the largest land mammals in the Amazon rainforest. Research proves that these large herbivores can assist in its reforestation by dispersing seeds through defecation. Tapirs visit twice more and disperse three times more seeds in burned areas of these forests than in the undisturbed parts. Additionally, more than 99% of seeds remain undamaged in the digestive system of tapirs. These mammals and dung beetles can work together to provide a natural and the cheapest method to restore this tropical forest. (Source)
  18. Tapirs are among the last large mammals that survived the Pleistocene extinction nearly 11,000 years ago. Due to their size and digestive system, they are possibly the only remaining mammals that disperse large seeds over long distances in their ecosystem. (Source)
  19. Tapirs are browsers and eat fruits, berries, and leaves in the wild. All species consume a wide variety of plants in their habitat. They use their prehensile trunk to pick their favorite food easily and spend most of their active time foraging.
  20. Big cats, anacondas, and crocodiles are the natural predators of tapirs. However, they are more dangerous to young tapirs because adults can defend themselves by running, submerging in water, biting, and through tough skin. The word “tapir” means “thick” in the Brazilian Indian language concerning its thick hide.
  21. Tapirs are generally friendlier with humans in captivity, but mothers with calves can attack in zoos and the wild. They use their sharp teeth, which can result in severe injuries and even amputated limbs. (Source)

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