Tapirs live in the rainforests and grasslands of Central and South America and Southeast Asia. They have a distinctive snout and a body shape that makes them look like a pig and a donkey. Is the animal not familiar to you? Read our tapir facts and pictures to expand your knowledge and deepen your appreciation for these creatures.
This list shows that these creatures are adept swimmers and divers, often submerging to feed on aquatic plants. Moreover, they contribute to biodiversity and have existed since the Eocene epoch. Join us as we study tapirs so we can understand their ecological influence.
Do you want to know more about big animals? Check out this list of the strongest animals in the world!
10 Must-Read Tapir Facts
1. Tapirs are ancient.
Tapirs have existed for approximately 55 million years, since the early Eocene epoch. As such, they are one of the earliest distinct species in North America.
Over time, tapirs have migrated and established themselves in South America, Central America, and Southeast Asia. Despite their epic journeys, tapirs have maintained their physical characteristics for approximately 20 million years.
Moreover, fossils from the Early Oligocene suggest that they are one of the most primitive mammals on Earth. Additionally, tapirs have witnessed the extinction of dinosaurs yet have remained almost unchanged2.
2. Tapirs have a versatile prehensile snout.
This tapir fact describes the functions of its most distinct feature — its snout!
The tapir's prehensile snout, an extension of its nose and upper lip, serves multiple purposes. The tapir uses its snout to forage for food in densely vegetated habitats, plucking leaves, shoots, and fruits from the undergrowth. Additionally, it can help the tapir unearth roots and tubers from the ground and strip bark from trees.
Furthermore, the prehensile snout plays a crucial role in tapir socializing. For example, tapirs frequently touch or nuzzle each other with their snouts. Despite its many uses, it is not a weapon; tapirs rely on their large bodies and agile legs for defense.
3. Tapirs are massive herbivorous mammals.
The tapir is a mammal that stands almost as tall as a donkey. Moreover, tapirs are one of the largest land mammals in their respective habitats; their barrel-shaped body can carry 500 to 800 pounds. Some male tapirs can even weigh up to 1100 pounds.
The Malayan tapir, the world's largest species of tapir, can weigh up to 800 pounds and has a unique black-and-white coat. Their size enables them to forage for food and protect themselves from potential predators.
Each tapir possesses unique physical characteristics. For example, the Malayan tapir is the largest, standing 9 feet tall and weighing over 1000 pounds. On the other hand, the mountain tapir is the smallest, weighing between 300 to 400 pounds, which is still pretty massive.
Believe it or not, tapirs are closely related to well-known herbivores that don't share the same snout as them — horses and rhinoceros!
4. Tapirs live everywhere.
South America has diverse ecosystems that provide a habitat for tapirs. Countries like Brazil and Venezuela have lush rainforests and hidden water bodies home to many tapirs, such as the Lowland tapir (Brazilian tapir), Kabomani tapir, or Baird's tapir. Likewise, mountain tapirs live in the mountains of Ecuador, Colombia, and northern Peru.
However, not all habitats of Malayan tapirs have seen full exploration. This species resides in Asia, including Burma, Malaya, Sumatra, and Thailand. Additionally, the Malayan tapir can survive in various environments.
Like an elephant breathing with its trunk while swimming, the tapir fact below mentions a similar ability of the primitive pig-like herbivore.
5. Tapirs are master swimmers.
Thanks to their snout, tapirs can swim on the water's surface and underwater. Not only do they use their snouts for foraging, but they also work like a snorkel, allowing them to remain submerged for a while.
Tapirs are known for their dense bodies, which can seem awkward on land. However, they become agile and buoyant when in water, using their short legs as powerful paddles. Every few minutes, the tapir's snout emerges from the water's surface to breathe air. At the same time, its body blends with the undercurrents.
6. Tapirs only give birth to one calf at a time.
Tapirs have a gestation period of 13 months, one of the longest among mammals. Moreover, a tapir giving birth is a milestone because they only give birth to one calf at a time.
Upon the birth of her calf, the tapir mother immediately starts caring for and protecting her offspring. She has dedicated almost a year to nursing and feeding her young. Additionally, she hides her baby within dense foliage to avoid potential predators.
7. Young tapirs have camouflage.
One might overlook a young tapir in the dense undergrowth of the tropical rainforest. The coat of newly born tapir calves comprises a combination of white spots and stripes over a reddish-brown base, which helps them hide from predators.
When motionless, its unique coat pattern disrupts its shape, rendering it nearly invisible to an untrained eye. During the first few months, the mother tapir often leaves the young tapir alone to search for food, making this natural disguise a crucial shield.
As baby tapirs become stronger, their patterns begin to fade. This transformation signifies a significant shift toward adulthood.
How could these massive herbivores benefit the ecosystem? The following tapir facts discuss why they are nature's road builders and gardeners.
8. Tapirs create walking paths for other tapirs.
Tapirs also create footpaths in the wild, which are often difficult to navigate due to dense undergrowth and foliage. However, tapirs strategically make these paths for other tapirs, leading them to food sources and watering holes. This ability has earned them the title of "umbrella species."
An 'umbrella species' is a term used in ecology to describe a species whose extensive habitat needs also benefit other animals. Since tapirs create paths all over the forest while looking for food, other animals can follow the same roads and survive.
Moreover, their broad movements and indiscriminate eating habits ultimately benefit the other inhabitants of their ecosystem. Monkeys, deer, birds, reptiles, and wildcats survive in the jungle because of the tapir's tireless pursuit of lush vegetation.
9. Tapirs are "gardeners of the forest."
Tapirs eat fruits and berries and help distribute seeds in dense forest ecosystems1. For example, tapirs' digestive tracts carry the seeds of fruits and berries, protected by their outer shells. When the tapir defecates, they release the seeds across different parts of the forest floor, promoting genetic diversity among plant species; the movement of each seed from one location to another could give rise to a new plant.
All tapir species, like the South American tapir and the Malayan tapir, disperse seeds in their habitats.
10. Tapirs are endangered species.
Unfortunately, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorized all four species - Baird's tapir, Malayan Tapir, Mountain Tapir, and the South American Tapir (or Lowland tapirs) - as either endangered or vulnerable.
These animals struggle against habitat loss from human activities, such as encroaching on their living spaces. The gradual transformation of a vast lush forest and tapir habitat into palm oil plantations, livestock pastures, and crop farming is the stark reality befalling tapirs and other animal species.
Hunting poses another equally severe threat. Hunters prey upon these docile giants for their meat and hides. Today, the tapirs need help to adapt to the world, which is evolving too quickly for them to keep up.
Share these tapir facts with your friends to spread the love for these herbivores.
Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with T.
Fragoso, J. M. V., Silvius, K. M., & Correa, J. A. (2003). Long-distance seed dispersal by tapirs increases seed survival and aggregates tropical trees. Ecology, 84(8), 1998-2006.
Holbrook, L. T. (1999). The Phylogeny and Classification of Tapiromorph Perissodactyls (Mammalia). Cladistics, 15(3), 331-350.