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Temporal range: 55–0 Ma
Early EoceneHolocene
Brazilian tapir
Cristalino River, Southern Amazon, Brazil
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Perissodactyla
Superfamily: Tapiroidea
Family: Tapiridae
Gray, 1821
Genus: Tapirus
Brünnich, 1772

Tapirus bairdii
Tapirus kabomani
Tapirus indicus
Tapirus pinchaque
Tapirus terrestris

A tapir ( or ) is a large, herbivorous mammal, similar in shape to a pig, with a short, prehensile snout. Tapirs inhabit jungle and forest regions of South America, Central America, and Southeastern Asia. The five extant species of tapirs are the Brazilian tapir, the Malayan tapir, the Baird's tapir, the kabomani tapir, and the mountain tapir. The four species that have been evaluated (the Brazilian, Malayan, Baird's and mountain tapir) are all classified as endangered or vulnerable. Their closest relatives are the other odd-toed ungulates, which include horses, donkeys, zebras and rhinoceri.


  • Species 1
  • Hybrids 2
  • General appearance 3
  • Physical characteristics 4
  • Lifecycle 5
  • Behavior 6
  • Habitat, predation, and vulnerability 7
  • Evolution and natural history 8
  • Genetics 9
  • Conservation 10
  • Attacks on humans 11
  • Cultural references 12
  • References 13
  • External links 14


Five extant species within one extant genus are widely recognized. Four are in Central and South America whilst the fifth is in Asia.[1] (Some authors describe more, and a number are extinct):


Hybrids of the Baird's and the Brazilian tapirs were bred at the San Francisco Zoo around 1969 and later produced a backcross second generation.[2]

General appearance

(video) A tapir at Ueno Zoo.

Size varies between types, but most tapirs are about 2 m (6.6 ft) long, stand about 1 m (3 ft) high at the shoulder, and weigh between 150 and 300 kg (330 and 700 lb). Their coats are short and range in color from reddish-brown, to grey, to nearly black, with the notable exceptions of the Malayan tapir, which has a white, saddle-shaped marking on its back, and the mountain tapir, which has longer, woolly fur. All tapirs have oval, white-tipped ears, rounded, protruding rumps with stubby tails, and splayed, hooved toes, with four toes on the front feet and three on the hind feet, which help them to walk on muddy and soft ground. Baby tapirs of all types have striped-and-spotted coats for camouflage. Females have a single pair of mammary glands,[3] and males have long penises relative to their body size.[4][5][6][7][8]

Physical characteristics

Tapir showing the flehmen response

The flehmen response, a posture in which they raise their snouts and show their teeth to detect scents. This response is frequently exhibited by bulls sniffing for signs of other males or females in oestrus in the area. The length of the proboscis varies among species; Malayan tapirs have the longest snouts and Brazilian tapirs have the shortest.[9] The evolution of tapir probosces, made up almost entirely of soft tissues rather than bony internal structures, gives the Tapiridae skull a unique form in comparison to other perissodactyls, with a larger sagittal crest, orbits positioned more rostrally, a posteriorly telescoped cranium, and a more elongated and retracted nasoincisive incisure.[10][11]

Tapirs have brachyodont, or low-crowned teeth, that lack cementum. Their dental formula is:


Totaling 42 to 44 teeth, this dentition is closer to that of equids, which may differ by one less canine, than their other perissodactyl relatives, rhinoceroses.[12][13] Their incisors are chisel-shaped, with the third large, conical upper incisor separated by a short gap from the considerably smaller canine. A much longer gap is found between the canines and premolars, the first of which may be absent.[14] Tapirs are lophodonts, and their cheek teeth have distinct lophs (ridges) between protocones, paracones, metacones and hypocones.[15][16]

Tapirs have brown eyes, often with a bluish cast to them, which has been identified as corneal cloudiness, a condition most commonly found in Malayan tapirs. The exact etiology is unknown, but the cloudiness may be caused by excessive exposure to light or by trauma.[17][18] However, the tapir's sensitive ears and strong sense of smell help to compensate for deficiencies in vision.

Tapirs have simple stomachs and are hindgut fermenters that ferment digested food in a large cecum.[19]


Young tapirs reach sexual maturity between three and five years of age, with females maturing earlier than males.[20] Under good conditions, a healthy female tapir can reproduce every two years; a single young, called a calf, is born after a gestation of about 13 months.[21] The natural lifespan of a tapir is about 25 to 30 years, both in the wild and in zoos.[22] Apart from mothers and their young offspring, tapirs lead almost exclusively solitary lives.


The undersides of the front (left, with four toes) and back (right, with three toes) feet of a Malayan tapir at rest

Although they frequently live in dryland forests, tapirs with access to rivers spend a good deal of time in and underwater, feeding on soft vegetation, taking refuge from predators, and cooling off during hot periods. Tapirs near a water source will swim, sink to the bottom, and walk along the riverbed to feed, and have been known to submerge themselves under water to allow small fish to pick parasites off their bulky bodies.[23] Along with freshwater lounging, tapirs often wallow in mud pits, which also help to keep them cool and free of insects.

In the wild, the tapir's diet consists of fruit, berries, and leaves, particularly young, tender growth. Tapirs will spend many of their waking hours foraging along well-worn trails, snouts to the ground in search of food. Baird's tapirs have been observed to eat around 40 kg (85 lb) of vegetation in one day.[24]

Tapirs are largely nocturnal and crepuscular, although the smaller mountain tapir of the Andes is generally more active during the day than its congeners. They have monocular vision.

Copulation may occur in or out of water, and in captivity, mating pairs will often copulate multiple times during oestrus.[25][26] Intromission lasts between 10 and 20 minutes.[27]

Adult Malayan tapir
Tooth from the extinct Tapirus veroensis, 2.5cm wide, about 1 million years old, alluvial deposits, Florida, USA
A baby Brazilian tapir with spots and stripes characteristic of all juvenile tapirs
An adult Malayan tapir sitting

Habitat, predation, and vulnerability

Adult tapirs are large enough to have few natural predators, and the thick skin on the backs of their necks helps to protect them from threats such as jaguars, crocodiles, anacondas, and tigers. The creatures are also able to run fairly quickly, considering their size and cumbersome appearance, finding shelter in the thick undergrowth of the forest or in water. Hunting for meat and hides has substantially reduced their numbers and, more recently, habitat loss has resulted in the conservation watch-listing of all four species: both the Brazilian tapir and the Malayan tapir are classified as vulnerable; and the Baird's tapir and the mountain tapir are endangered.

Evolution and natural history

The first tapirids, such as Heptodon, appeared in the early Eocene of North America.[28] They appeared very similar to modern forms, but were about half the size, and lacked the proboscis. The first true tapirs appeared in the Oligocene. By the Miocene, such genera as Miotapirus were almost indistinguishable from the extant species. Asian and American tapirs were believed to have diverged around 20 to 30 million years ago; tapirs later migrated from North America to South America around 3 million years ago, as part of the Great American Interchange.[29] For much of their history, tapirs were spread across the Northern Hemisphere, where they became extinct as recently as 10,000 years ago.[30] T. merriami, T. veroensis, T. copei, and T. californicus became extinct during the Pleistocene in North America. The giant tapir Megatapirus survived until about 4,000 years ago in China.

Approximate divergence times based on a 2013 analysis of mtDNA sequences are 0.5 Ma for T. kabomani and the T. terrestrisT. pinchaque clade, 5 Ma for T. bairdii and the three South American tapirs and 9 Ma for the T. indicus branching.[31] T. pinchaque arises from within a paraphyletic complex of T. terrestris populations.[31]


T. terrestris (Brazilian tapir, Ecuador cluster)

T. pinchaque (mountain tapir)

T. terrestris (Brazilian tapir, other clusters)

T. kabomani (kabomani tapir)

T. bairdii (Baird's tapir)

T. indicus (Malayan tapir)

The tapir may have evolved from the paleothere Hyracotherium (once thought to be a primitive horse).[32]


The species of tapir have the following chromosomal numbers:

Malayan tapir, T. indicus 2n = 52
Mountain tapir, T. pinchaque 2n = 76
Baird's tapir, T. bairdii 2n = 80
Brazilian tapir, T. terrestris 2n = 80

The Malayan tapir, the species most isolated geographically from the rest of the genus, has a significantly smaller number of chromosomes and has been found to share fewer homologies with the three types of American tapirs. A number of conserved autosomes (13 between karyotypes of Baird's tapir and the Brazilian tapir, and 15 between Baird's and the mountain tapir) have also been found in the American species that are not found in the Asian animal. However, geographic proximity is not an absolute predictor of genetic similarity; for instance, G-banded preparations have revealed Malayan, Baird's and Brazilian tapirs have identical X chromosomes, while mountain tapirs are separated by a heterochromatic addition/deletion.[33]

Lack of genetic diversity in tapir populations has become a major source of concern for conservationists. Habitat loss has isolated already small populations of wild tapirs, putting each group in greater danger of dying out completely. Even in zoos, genetic diversity is limited; all captive mountain tapirs, for example, are descended from only two founder individuals.[34]


A number of conservation projects have been started around the world. The Tapir Specialist Group, a unit of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, strives to conserve biological diversity by stimulating, developing, and executing practical programs to study, save, restore, and manage the four species of tapir and their remaining habitats in Central and South America and Southeast Asia.[35]

The Baird's Tapir Project of Costa Rica is the longest ongoing tapir project in the world, having started in 1994. It involves placing radio collars on tapirs in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park to study their social systems and habitat preferences.[36]

Attacks on humans

A mountain tapir, the wooliest and most threatened species of tapir

Tapirs are generally shy, but when scared they can defend themselves with their very powerful jaws. In 1998, a zookeeper in Oklahoma City was mauled and had an arm severed after opening the door to a female tapir's enclosure to push food inside. (The tapir's two-month-old baby also occupied the cage at the time.)[37] In 2006, Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Echandi (who was then the Costa Rican Environmental Minister) became lost in the Corcovado National Park and was found by a search party with a "nasty bite" from a wild tapir.[38] In 2013, a two-year-old girl suffered stomach and arm injuries after being mauled by a Brazilian tapir in Dublin Zoo during a supervised experience in the tapir enclosure. Dublin Zoo pled guilty to breaching health and safety regulations and were ordered to pay €5,000 to charity.[39] However, such examples are rare; for the most part, tapirs are likely to avoid confrontation in favour of running from predators, hiding, or, if possible, submerging themselves in nearby water until a threat is gone.[40]

Frank Buck wrote about an attack by a tapir in 1926, which he described in his book, Bring 'Em Back Alive.[41]

Cultural references

Lowland tapir earthenware from Suriname, made before 1914

In Chinese, Korean and Japanese, the tapir is named after a beast from Chinese mythology, known in Japanese mythology as the Baku (or). A feature of this mythical creature is a snout like that of an elephant. In Chinese and Japanese folklore, tapirs, like their chimerical counterpart, are thought to eat people's nightmares. In Chinese, the name of this beast, subsequently the name of the tapir, is in Mandarin () and mahk in Cantonese (). The Korean equivalent is maek (Hangul: , Hanja: 貘 [출처] 테이퍼 [貘, tapir ] ), while it is called baku (バク) in Japanese.

In the prehistoric sequences of the science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, tapirs appear alongside primitive hominids in Africa. There is no evidence indicating tapirs ever existed in Africa, so it is likely they were added simply for their "prehistoric" appearance.[42]

Also known as the "Mormon horse" due to theories claiming that it was referred to as a horse in the Book of Mormon.[43]


  1. ^ a b Hance, Jeremy. "Scientists make one of the biggest animal discoveries of the century: a new tapir". Mongabay. Retrieved 17 December 2013. 
  2. ^ crossT. bairdii x T. terrestrisPictures of taken by Sheryl Todd, The Tapir Gallery, web site of the Tapir Preservation Fund
  3. ^ Gorog, A. 2001. Tapirus terrestris, Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved June 19, 2006.
  4. ^ RS, G. Hickey. "TAPIR PENIS." Nature Australia 25.8 (1997): 10-11.
  5. ^ Endangered Wildlife and Plants of the World. Marshall Cavendish. 1 January 2001. pp. 1460–.  
  6. ^ M. R. N. Prasad (1974). Männliche Geschlechtsorgane. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 119–.  
  7. ^ Daniel W. Gade (1999). Nature & Culture in the Andes. Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp. 125–.  
  8. ^ Jeffrey Quilter (1 April 2004). Cobble Circles and Standing Stones: Archaeology at the Rivas Site, Costa Rica. University of Iowa Press. pp. 181–.  
  9. ^ Witmer, Lawrence; Sampson, Scott D.; Solounias, Nikos (1999). "The proboscis of tapirs (Mammalia: Perissodactyla): a case study in novel narial anatomy" (PDF). Journal of Zoology: 251. 
  10. ^ Witmer, page 249
  11. ^ Colbert, Dr. Matthew, 2002, Tapirus terrestris (On-line), Digital Morphology. Retrieved June 20, 2006.
  12. ^ Ballenger, L. and P. Myers. 2001. "Tapiridae" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved June 20, 2006.
  13. ^ Huffman, Brent. Order Perissodactyla at Ultimate Ungulate
  14. ^ "PERISSODACTYLA." LoveToKnow 1911 Online Encyclopedia
  15. ^ Myers, P., R. Espinosa, C. S. Parr, T. Jones, G. S. Hammond, and T. A. Dewey. 2006. The Diversity of Cheek Teeth. The Animal Diversity Web (online). Retrieved June 20, 2006.
  16. ^ Myers, P., R. Espinosa, C. S. Parr, T. Jones, G. S. Hammond, and T. A. Dewey. 2006. The Basic Structure of Cheek Teeth. The Animal Diversity Web (online). Retrieved June 20, 2006.
  17. ^ Tapirs Described, the Tapir Gallery
  18. ^ Janssen, Donald L., DVM, Dipl ACZM, Bruce A. Rideout, DVM, PhD, Dipl ACVP, Mark E. Edwards, PhD. ."(Tapirus sp.)"Medical Management of Captive Tapirs 1996 American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Proceedings. Nov 1996. Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Pp. 1-11
  19. ^ Eisenberg, J.F.; et al. (1990). "Tapirs". In Parker, S.P. Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals, Vol. 4. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing. pp. 598–620.  
  20. ^ "Woodland Park Zoo Animal Fact Sheet: Malayan Tapir ''(Tapirus indicus)''". Retrieved 2009-11-02. 
  21. ^ Tapir | San Diego Zoo Animals.
  22. ^ Morris, Dale. "Face to face with big nose." BBC Wildlife, March 2005, page 37.
  23. ^ Morris, page 36.
  24. ^ TPF News, Tapir Preservation Fund, Vol. 4, No. 7, July 2001. See section on study by Charles Foerster.
  25. ^ "Minimum Husbandry Standards: Tapiridae (tapirs)". Retrieved 2009-11-02. 
  26. ^ Animal Diversity Web fact sheet on Tapirus terrestris
  27. ^ Catharine E. Bell (2001). Encyclopedia of the World's Zoos. Taylor & Francis. pp. 1205–.  
  28. ^ Ballenger, L.; Myers, P. (2001). "Family Tapiridae".  
  29. ^ Ashley, M.V.; Norman, J.E.; Stross, L. (1996). "Phylogenetic analysis of the perissodactyl family tapiridae using mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase (COII) sequences". Mammal Evolution 3 (4): 315–326.  
  30. ^ Palmer, D., ed. (1999). The Marshall Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals. London: Marshall Editions. p. 261.  
  31. ^ a b Cozzuol, M. A.; Clozato, C. L.; Holanda, E. C.; Rodrigues, F. V. H. G.; Nienow, S.; De Thoisy, B.; Redondo, R. A. F.; Santos, F. C. R. (2013). "A new species of tapir from the Amazon".  
  32. ^ "Florida Museum of Natural History Fact Page". Retrieved 2009-11-02. 
  33. ^ Houck, M.L.; Kingswood, S.C.; Kumamoto, A.T. (2000). )"Perissodactyla, Tapiridae (Tapirus"Comparative cytogenetics of tapirs, genus . Cytogenetics and Cell Genetics 89: 110–115.  
  34. ^ Mountain Tapir Conservation at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Archived June 15, 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  35. ^ "About the Tapir Specialist Group". Retrieved 2009-11-02. 
  36. ^ "Baird's Tapir Project of Costa Rica". 2009-02-18. Retrieved 2009-11-02. 
  37. ^ "Woman's arm bitten off in zoo attack", Associated Press report by Jay Hughes, 20 Nov 1998
  38. ^ "Interview with Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Echandi", IUCN Tapir Specialist Group 2006
  39. ^ "Dublin Zoo pleads guilty to safety breach in tapir attack on child", The Irish Times report Tom Tuite, 14 Oct 2014
  40. ^ Goudot, Justin. "Nouvelles observations sur le Tapir Pinchaque (Recent Observations on the Tapir Pinchaque)," Comptes Rendus, Paris 1843, vol. xvi, pages 331-334. Available online with English translation by Tracy Metz. Report contains accounts of wild mountain tapirs shying away from human contact at salt deposits after being hunted, and hiding.
  41. ^ Buck, Frank (2006-05-30). Bring 'em Back Alive: The Best of ... - Google Books.  
  42. ^ Tapirs in "2001: A Space Odyssey", The Tapir Gallery.
  43. ^

External links

  • IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group
  • The Tapir Gallery at The Tapir Preservation Fund website
  • World Tapir Day website
  • Baird's Tapir Project of Costa Rica
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