5 things to know about tapirs, South America’s largest mammals

1. Don’t say “tapirs”, but “tapirs”: actually there are… 4-5 different species!

An elongated, “grasping” nose that allows them to grab and pluck branches, a massive but slender body ending in a very short tail, a head adorned with small erect ears, a predominantly nocturnal lifestyle and a vegetarian diet: without a doubt, you are in front of a tapir. But what?

There are 4 main species belonging to the genus “tapirus“, 3 of which are found on the American continent: ground tapir (Tapirus terrestrial), occurs from Colombia to Brazil; woolly tapirTapirus pinchach) or “mountain tapir”, living in the Colombian, Ecuadorian and Peruvian Andes at an altitude of 2000 to 4000 m above sea level; and finally Baird’s tapir (tapirus bairdi), whose range extends from southern Mexico to northern Colombia across Central America.

If the tapir is the largest mammal in South America, capable of weighing up to 225 kg, then the most impressive species lives … in Asia. It’s a Malaysian tapirTapir indicus), present from southern Burma to southeastern Thailand, of course in Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Its maximum weight: 400 kg! He is recognized at first sight by the two-tone dress he wears as an adult.

Finally, the fifth species is called “little black tapir” (tapirus cabomani) would have been “discovered” in 2013. This animal, which evolved between Brazil, Colombia and Guyana, would differ from land tapirs in a less impressive size. But due to controversy in the scientific community, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) tapir specialist group currently only recognizes the 4 species mentioned above.

2. Despite their trunk, tapirs are closer to horses than elephants.

Their prehensile nose may certainly resemble an elephant’s trunk, but taxonomists (specialists in the evolutionary relationships between living things) classify the genus “tapirusÔÇťAmong the artiodactyl mammals (from the Greek. perissos“odd” and typists, “finger”), on the hind legs, three fingers. Thus, tapirs are closer to horses (in which two of the three fingers are actually reduced to the state of rudiments) and rhinos.

3. Swimming, camouflage: tapir tricks to escape predators

If their streamlined body seems specially carved for smooth movement in dense vegetation, then tapirs feel at ease … and in the water! Very good swimmers, they can even use their elongated nose as a snorkel to breathe. A very useful trick to distance your predators in case of being chased, especially jaguars in South America.

Does the black and white dress of the Malaysian tapir remind you of a panda dress? In fact, this is not accidental. This two-tone pattern allows two Asian mammals to camouflage themselves in vegetation by “breaking” their silhouette into several parts. And in all tapir species, juveniles have striped and spotted coats that also allow them to hide from predators.

4. Rainforest ‘Gardeners’, Tapirs Scatter Seeds

Without tapirs, the rainforest as we know it would simply not exist. Indeed, these mammals eat leaves and buds, as well as fruits that have fallen to the ground, such as mangoes and wild figs, whose seeds they then scatter, depositing their excrement a little further. An important role in the reproduction of plant species, which earned them the nickname “forest gardeners”.

5. Tapirs are threatened by deforestation

35 million years. Can humanity put an end to the long evolutionary history of tapirs? Their very slow reproduction – 13 months of gestation and one birth per female every two years on average – makes these animals especially vulnerable to human activities. In Asia, the draining of wetlands and the destruction of forests for palm oil production threaten the Malayan tapir. In South America, deforestation is giving way to cultivated fields and cattle ranching, depriving tapirs and many other animal species of their habitat.

For these reasons, the terrestrial tapir is classified as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List (2019). Baird’s tapir, mountain tapir and Malaysian tapir are classified as “nearly threatened” with extinction (2016).

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