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4 Types of Tapirs: Species, Facts and Photos

Tapirs are a group of large terrestrial mammals. Even though there are just four species, they exhibit diverse characteristics. Found from Asia to the Americas, these animals differ significantly in appearance, habitat, and many other aspects. In this article, you will learn more about each type of tapir species.

Tapir Classification

Tapirs are large herbivorous mammals from the Tapiridae family. They exhibit a pig-like shape with a prehensile nose trunk. They belong to the Perissodactyla order and share their family tree with other odd-toed ungulates like horses, rhinoceroses, and zebras.

Their habitat extends from the jungles of Central and South America to Southeast Asia. The genus Tapirus comprises four species: the South American tapir, the Malayan tapir, Baird's tapir, and the mountain tapir. A potential fifth member, the Kabomani tapir, identified in 2013, is disputed and may merely be a subspecies of the South American tapir1.

Related Read: Tapir Facts.

4 Types of Tapir Species

1. Lowland Tapir (Tapirus terrestris)

lowland tapir
Photo by Bernard DUPONT on Flickr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Lowland Tapir, often known as the Brazilian Tapir or South American Tapir, thrives predominantly in South America's tropical forests, including Brazil. Its habitats stretch from Argentina to Venezuela, only skipping regions west of the Andean Cordillera. Its home choices lean towards tropical montane forests, though swamps and lowland woods are also frequented. 

Living up to its Brazilian Tapir nickname, this species showcases a unique humplike projection on its head, extant from its eyes to the neck due to a sagittal crest. This carries a short mane, mirroring the dark brown or red coats of adults. Baby tapirs or tapir calves carry horizontal white stripes that vanish after about seven months. The extended nose, or proboscis, is their trademark, handy for feeding.

Primarily herbivores, their menu, thanks to their adaptable snout, comprises leaves, buds, shoots, small branches, fruit, grasses, aquatic plants, and an impressive variety of rainforest seeds. Due to limited eyesight, they navigate their lifestyle primarily by scent; solitary, they only pair up for mating or traveling with offspring.

Sadly, the endangered Lowland Tapir faces a population reduction exceeding 30% in the past three decades, attributable to habitat loss, illegal hunting, road fatalities, and livestock competition. Without intervention, this decline is slated to continue. Currently, IUCN gave Lowland Tapirs the vulnerable species status.

2. Baird's Tapir (Tapirus bairdii)

baird's tapir
Photo by Eric Kilby on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Baird's Tapir, the largest native terrestrial mammal in the Neotropics, resembles a small donkey in size. Its face and ears have cream markings, dark brown bristly hair, and spotted cheeks.

Their habitat predominantly spans from southeastern Mexico through northern Colombia to parts of Ecuador, in landscapes as varied as marshes and mangroves to tropical rainforests and montane cloud forests.

Armed with their proboscis, these tapirs eat leaves, fruits, and stems. Their preference for nocturnal activity, however, intrigues many. Avoiding the day's heat in notoriously warm habitats across Central America, such as Costa Rica, these tapirs have cleverly harnessed the cooler evening hours to forage and nourish themselves.

Unfortunately, the endangered Baird’s Tapirs are experiencing a rapid population decline - over 50% in the last three generations. Loss of habitat, fragmentation, and hunting pressure all pose worrying threats to their existence. 

Tackling these challenges, there are now urgent calls for renewed conservation efforts, such as better enforcement of hunting laws and improved education amongst local communities to cherish and protect these loyal inhabitants of their biodiversity.

3. Malayan Tapir (Tapirus indicus)

malayan tapir
Photo by Tambako The Jaguar on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Malayan Tapir is the only living tapir species outside the Americas. It resides in Southeast Asia, spanning the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra. These forest-dwelling creatures favor habitats like rainforests, jungles, mature rubber plantations, and even open fields. 

Equipped with sizeable, robust bodies, their extended nose and upper lip form a prehensile proboscis, an iconic feature of the species. Their adult coat pattern, dubbed the "saddle" pattern, showcases a unique black-and-white mix. Eyes are small and round, and tapirs have four toes on the forefeet and three on the hind feet, rounded off with hooves. However, footprints usually illustrate the imprints of three digits. 

Curiously, young tapirs don't have this adult pattern. Instead, they adorn a coat with spots and stripes that fade by the time they're about six months old.

Malayan Tapirs mate monogamously. Introduction of mates often occurs through scent signals, even visual cues at times. Primarily nocturnal, these animals thrive most in crepuscular activities. Their diet consists mainly of fruits, leaves, and wood. 

Big cats like Tigers and leopards are considered their primary predators. Still, adult tapirs aren't easy prey due to their disruptive body pattern. 

Malayan Tapirs are unfortunately endangered, primarily due to habitat loss, hunting, road kills, and hunting traps – with less than 2,500 mature individuals remaining. Their population is predicted to continue declining, highlighting an urgent need for conservation.

4. Mountain Tapir (Tapirus pinchaque)

mountain tapir
Photo by David Sifry on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Mountain Tapir, often referenced as the Andean or Woolly tapir, holds its ground in the lofty northern Andes. Nestled in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia's paramos and cloud forests, these animals thrive between 6,600 and 14,100 ft above sea level. Their woolly coat, a necessity in the sub-zero temperatures, sets them apart.

Classified as the smallest species of tapir, it sports a woolly dual layer. A thick undercoat beneath long outer fur plays defense against the biting cold. Their color varies from reddish-brown to black, with white highlights on their lips and ear tips.

Regarding diet, Mountain Tapirs are herbivores, feeding predominantly on shrubs' fibrous leaves most actively at night. 

However, with ongoing habitat loss, fragmentation, and hunting pressures, their population suffers. With less than 2,500 mature individuals remaining and a projected 20% decline in future generations, Mountain Tapirs have the endangered species tag2.

1

Ruiz‐García, M., Castellanos, A., Bernal, L. A., Pinedo-Castro, M., Kaston, F., & Shostell, J. M. (2016). Mitogenomics of the mountain tapir (Tapirus pinchaque, Tapiridae, Perissodactyla, Mammalia) in Colombia and Ecuador: Phylogeography and insights into the origin and systematics of the South American tapirs. Mammalian Biology, 81(2), 163–175.

2

Lizcano, D.J., Amanzo, J., Castellanos, A., Tapia, A. & Lopez-Malaga, C.M. (2016). Tapirus pinchaque. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T21473A45173922. 

By Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Isabela is a determined millennial passionate about continuously seeking out ways to make an impact. With a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering with honors, Isabela’s research expertise and interest in artistic works, coupled with a creative mindset, offers readers a fresh take on different environmental, social, and personal development topics.

Photo by Marco Zanferrari on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).
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