Tapirs of of the World
Tapirs are mammals which are often confused
with hippos, anteaters and capybaras. Their closest living relatives
are odd-toed ungulates (hoofed animals), horses and rhinos.
There are four
living species of tapir:
See also our
A unique feature that tapir posess is
its fleshy prehensile nose that it uses to grab leaves and even
use as a snorkle while swimming. Their hides are very tough but
streamlined for easy maneuvering in the forest. Tapirs are "seed dispersers."
They eat seeds that are then dispersed in their scat which helps
the forest to regenerate.
Tapirs are herbivores best suited to primary
or old growth secondary forest, and their reproduction is slower
than most mammal species due to a long gestation period (13 months)
and to the fact that there is only one offspring per gestation.
Tapir Habitat Range
Note that ranges are an illustrated approximation. True tapir populations
exist in habitat fragments across the indicated range for each
species. Maps by Carlos Pedraza, TSG, 2008. Click
to see a larger version of the map.
Tapir Population Status
Tapirs are becoming rare in their occurrence areas--the forests
of Central and South America, and Southeast Asia--mostly due
to habitat destruction and poaching. The IUCN Red Book lists
the four species of tapirs (Tapirus bairdii, T. terrestris,
and T. indicus) as either vulnerable or endangered.
The Mountain tapir, T. pinchaque, is one of the most
endangered large mammals in the world. The Baird’s tapir, T.
is the largest land mammal in the Neotropics and also endangered.
The Malayan tapir, T. indicus, is the only Old World
extant species and is also endangered in Sumatra and mainland
IUCN's 2008 Red List Report outlines current status
estimations for each species:
Baird's Tapir (external
Malayan Tapir (external
Mountain Tapir (external
Lowland Tapir (external
Tapir, captive. Photo by Brent Huffman, UltimateUngulate.com
Tapir, wild, Brazil. Photo by Richard Bodmer VULNERABLE
Tapir, captive, Colorado. Photo by Sheryl Todd,
TPF & Tapirback.com
Tapir, captive, Seattle. Photo by Gilia Angell
Threats to Tapirs
- Hunting pressure on tapirs throughout
- Habitat fragmentation resulting in
reduced genetic diversity and home range
- Encroachment into protected park areas
by subsistance farmers and illegal logging
Tapirs and Their Connection to
Tapirs play a critical role in shaping and maintaining the biological
diversity of tropical forests and function as biological indicators
of area requirements for the ecosystem. The tapir is one of the
first species in its habitat to be adversely affected by human disturbance
because of their size, and sensitivity to changes in their habitat
range. Local extinction or population decrease may trigger adverse
effects in the forest, causing disruptions of some key ecological
processes (e.g. seed predation and dispersal, nutrient recycling),
and eventually compromising the long-term integrity and biodiversity
of the ecosystem. These factors, added to the destruction of tapir
habitat in recent years, justify the urgency for investigation of
the status of the populations, and development and implementation
of conservation and management plans.
Tapir Specialist Group advocates on behalf
of tapirs and works to conserve their habitat and genetic diversity
through research projects on tapirs,
high standards of zoo
husbandry, and networking with government bodies, conservation
organizations, universities and zoos to create greater tapir awareness
and conservation planning.
How Tapirs Escape Predators
by Leonardo Salas
This is a brief account based on what little
knowledge we have of tapir anti-predator strategies, and of the
known predators of tapirs. Commonly, we hear reports or see photographs
of attacks on tapirs, reports such as the survival
story of Mr. Rodriguez Echandi in the lowland forests of Costa
Rica. Yet rarely, a researcher gets a glimpse of an attack or finds
the remnants of a kill. There are scientific accounts and unquestionable
data on the diet of predators including tapir as prey. But to my
knowledge, there is no published account of the effect of natural
predators on tapirs in the scientific literature. In other words,
we know the killer, but not the age and numbers of prey tapirs.
|Adult Lowland tapir demonstrating
the tapir's strong swimming skills, Parque Nacional Brasilia,
Brazil. © 2006 Paulo Andre Lima Borqes.
We should begin by stating that adult tapirs,
being large (the Andean tapir, the smaller species, can reach 100
Kg in size), escape most significantly smaller predators. This is
in itself a strategy to avoid predators. In fact, adult tapirs are
killed mainly by large cats and occasionally, perhaps, by large
snakes like Anacondas. (There is no confirmed scientific report
of the latter, but recently a video was posted where an Anaconda
regurgitated a lowland tapir – it is unknown whether the
snake killed the animal, but this is probably the case). So, the
adult Malayan tapir is prey to tigers and leopards in the Malayan peninsula,
and to tigers only in the island of Sumatra; the adult lowland tapir
and Baird’s tapir are prey to jaguars; the adult Andean tapir
is prey to pumas. (Pumas in Central and South America are not as
large as in the U.S.).
It is also likely that adult, or “old or sickly” lowland
and Baird’s tapirs fall prey also of pumas in the Neotropics,
pumas being significantly smaller than tapirs. For example, an old
lowland or Baird’s tapir (over 100 Kg) may be killed by a
large puma (weighing as much as 50 Kg or more). But it is the young
tapirs that are perhaps more susceptible to predation. In fact,
this threat on young ungulates is the evolutionary force suspected
of driving two important adaptations in tapirs.
First, like most large ungulates, tapirs produce one offspring (rarely
twins) per birth. This offspring is born ready to walk - another
anti-preadator adaptation. It is a substantial investment of energy
on the part of the mother, because she gestates the fetus until
it reaches that development stage. It is no wonder that tapirs gestate
for 12-13 months and breed in the wild only once every other year
(though, there is one field report of a female tapir in oestrus
18 months after her previous birth). Compare the tapir’s reproductive
strategy to that of pigs, which can give birth to large numbers
(4-12) of undeveloped offspring every year. So, tapirs are born
ready to move and avoid predators by staying next to their mothers,
at a considerable energetic cost to the mother.
Inevitably, the mothers need to browse
for food covering long distances and the newborn tapirs cannot keep
The second adaptation is in regards to protection from predators
when the young are left behind. Tapirs are born with a brown to
reddish-brown pelage, with rows of white dots. This coloration has
long been suspected to aid in camouflaging the baby tapir - another
adaptation to avoid predation.
|A Baird's tapir mother watches her
youngster closely, Campeche, Mexico. ©2006 Raphel Reina-Hurtado.
In a rather “obscure” scientific
publication, the author speculated on the tapir’s strategy
to avoid predation in early life and its behavioral development
– no data from the wild exists. The explanation goes as follows:
the very young tapir moves very little and remains mostly crouched
and hiding in thick vegetation. The mother goes on browsing forays,
returning once or twice daily to feed the young. When the mother
meets the baby, the young tapir follows her mother and feeds for
a while, until she eventaully leaves the baby behind for another
foray. As the baby grows, it spends more and more time walking with
her mother, learning what species are edible, before it is left
behind again. The process goes on until the young tapir reaches
a level of independence where it has learned to find food and the
mother is no longer needed.
All throughout this growth and learning process, the newborn tapir
slowly loses the camouflage coloration. Estimates from wild and
captive animals suggest that the last signs of the newborn coloration
are lost around 7 months of age. It is not known how long the young
remains foraging with and protected by its mother, but some data
suggest it could be more than a year.
Because tapirs invest so much in their offspring, it is only natural
that they become fiercely protective when their infants are attacked.
A hidden baby tapir, alone, may fall prey to jaguars, tigers or
pumas, but also to small cats such as ocelots or clouded leopards
(we have no data on ocelots or clouded leopards eating baby tapirs).
Mr. Rodriguez did not give any indication of the size of the baby
tapir he saw limping. We can only speculate that it must have been
a sizable offspring, already able to survive a large cat attack
- a jaguar or puma, if that was the case. We can also speculate
that the young tapir was still under one year of age. The mother’s
defensive behavior, as bluntly experienced by Mr. Rodriguez, is
only to be expected.
|French Guiana--the savage remains
of a poached tapir taken by a hunter. Read
more about the poaching problems in French Guiana. ©2005
Benoit de Thoisy, TSG.
How do tapirs escape predators? Anyone
who has seen tapirs in the wild can answer this question without
hesitation: tapirs run through thickets of forest and/or dive into
rivers or deep pools of water. A galloping tapir breaks through
bushes with branches 3-4 inches (8-10 cm) thick. A small cat gripping
the back of the tapir will have a hard time holding on to its prey
if it’s being hit by thick branches. Also, although cats can
and do swim, they are no match to the natatory prowess of a tapir,
which can go under water for a minute and thus escape the chasing
Despite all their adaptations to avoid predation, there is still
one predator tapirs of any age are unable to escape – relentless
and insatiable – man.
More about tapirs:
TSG's Tapir FAQ
Diego Zoo's Tapir page
Illustration generously provided
by Stephan Nash, Conservation International