Tapirs are large mammals with a pig-like appearance, but are believed to be more closely related to horses and rhinos. They are found in moist, dense forests in the more temperate regions of the Southern Hemisphere. Characterized primarily by their long nose and their stripe-furred offspring, they are normally nocturnal and herbivores. There are five identified species of tapir: Malayan, Lowland, Mountain, Baird's tapir, and the recently discovered T. kabomani which is the smallest of the tapirs.
All 5 species have a similar physical structure: a massive, barrel-shaped body that is rounded in back and tapering in front, short legs, neck, and tail, a distinctive and flexible proboscis-like snout/nose, white tipped ears, and baby tapirs have a reddish-brown and white striped/spotted coats that act as camouflage. Males are slightly smaller than females. Each of the five species however, have physical characteristics that separate them apart from the others. Tapirs have 4 toes on their front feet and only 3 toes on their back feet. The Malayan Tapir is the largest species and it has a short coat, black head and legs with large white saddle, and no mane. Baird’s Tapir has brown cream-colored markings on face and throat a dark spot on each cheek, behind and below the eye, and it has a brush-like mane. The Lowland Tapir has a brown or dark gray coat, a short narrow mane on its head and anterior back, and a unique sagittal neck crest. The Mountain Tapir has dark reddish-brown, have a thick wooly coat with under-fur, and lips outlined in white. T. kabomani is the smallest living tapir. Its limbs are the shortest of all living species. It has darker hair (gray to brownish) and a mane lower than the lowland tapir.
Tapirs mate and generally breed during the months of May and June. The initial introduction of mates is usually through scent signals and also sometimes visual cues. Mates may spend a great deal of time before copulation participating in courtship rituals, such as periods of chasing and often use vocalizations such as wheezing or whistling noises. A single offspring is produced every other year on average, although twins have been reported. The gestation period of the female lasts between 390 and 410 days (13 to 13.5 months). Weaning of offspring usually takes place between 6 and 8 months after birth. Independence occurs when the mother gives birth to a new offspring, sometimes even later. Generally, individuals become sexually mature around the age of 30 months, although this may be earlier depending on nutrition and compatibility of the breeding pair (in captivity). Females tend to become sexually mature before males generally by a few months.
A healthy calf can usually stand within one or two hours of birth. First nursing occurs within two to five hours, proceeding to feedings two to three times a day. Calves eat solid food as early as two weeks old and are capable of swimming at three weeks old. All care and protection is done by the mother until independence, although care decreases dramatically after about 3 months. Calves tend to be followers, not hiders. The average lifespan of a tapirs is approximately 30 years. They have been recorded living up to 36.5 years in captivity.
The tapir is a herbivore and spends its time browsing for food. The tapir eats leaves, twigs, branches, buds, shoots, berries, fruits and aquatic plants. Due to its large size, the tapir has few natural predators in its environment. It is known to be preyed upon by wild cats such as tigers, jaguars and cougars along with large reptiles like crocodiles and even the odd snake. The human is believed to be the most common predator of the tapir as they have been hunted for food and even domesticated in some areas.
Tapirs generally live in the forests and grasslands of Central and South America or in Southeast Asia. A notable exception is the mountain tapir, which lives high in the Andes Mountains. The average lifespan of a tapir in the wild is 25 to 30 years. Tapirs use their trunk to grab branches and clean them of leaves or to help pluck tasty fruit. Tapirs feed each morning and evening. During these hours they follow tunnel-like paths, worn through the heavy brush by previous tapir footsteps. These paths are then used by tapirs to reach water holes and lush feeding grounds. As they roam and defecate they leave behind they undigested plant and fruit seeds. Because of this, tapirs help future plant growth. This process allows the continual regrowth of the plants that the tapirs eat. Though they appear densely built, tapirs are at home in the water and often submerge to cool off. They are excellent swimmers and can even dive to feed on aquatic plants. They also love to bathe in mud, possibly to remove pesky ticks.
The population of all species of tapirs is in decline. The lowland tapir is listed as vulnerable while the others are all listed as endangered. Threats to tapirs caused by man include: hunting pressure on tapirs throughout their ranges, habitat fragmentation resulting in reduced genetic diversity and home range, and encroachment into protected park areas by subsistence farmers and illegal logging. Tapirs' natural predators are mainly large cats like tigers and possibly large snakes like anacondas. Tapirs, under natural circumstances, can escape predators and hide from them. Their young are born ready to walk and are born with a striped fur that acts as camouflage. Tapirs in general can rush through dense brush and forests quite easily. they are also excellent swimmers that can dive into water and swim across rivers and other bodies of water to escape. Tapirs have these abilities because they only produce a single offspring. Despite all their adaptations to avoid predation, there is still one predator tapirs of any age are unable to escape – relentless and insatiable – man.
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