Celebrate World Tapir Day With Fun Facts About These “Space Horses”
Published on April 21, 2014
April 27 is World Tapir Day! Yes, we know what you’re thinking: World what day?
The tapir (pronounced “tey-per”) is possibly the largest mammal you’ve never heard of. Even if you’ve seen one at the zoo, you may not have known what it was. Stand in front of an exhibit, and you’ll hear visitors make all kinds of wild guesses.
“I've heard ‘pig,’ and then as soon as they see the nose, they say, ‘Oh, no — it’s an anteater,’” says Mike Dee, former general curator and curator of mammals (retired) at the Los Angeles Zoo.
“I have also heard them being referred to as ‘space horses,’” says Mandy Smith, tapir keeper at Adelaide Zoo in Australia.
Funnily enough, that description — from a joke by an Australian comedian — is the closest. Tapirs are perissodactyla or odd-toed ungulates, putting them in the same family as rhinos and horses.
“If you look at the skull or the tooth structure, it’s very similar to that of a rhinoceros or a horse, so they all came from a common ancestor at one time,” Dee says.
“Their physiology is very similar to horses, and our vets will use horse-based medication if they need to be treated for any health issues,” Smith adds.
OK, but why the piglike proboscis that’s so long that it makes people think of anteaters? Tapirs don’t root in the ground, and they don’t eat ants, but their snout does help them get at their food. Their diet is made up of fruit, leaves and bark, especially new growth, all of which can be high up on trees. “Tapirs don’t jump,” Dee says, “so with the prehensile upper lip, they can grasp things they wouldn’t [otherwise] be able to reach.”
Types of Tapirs
Tapirs are found in two parts of the world. The Malayan tapir, with its distinctive black-and-white coloring, is the largest and is found in Southeast Asia. The more subdued-looking Baird’s, mountain and lowland tapirs are found in various parts of South and Central America.
Scientists thought these four tapirs were the only species until just last year, when the discovery of a new species was announced. You’d think it would be hard for such a big animal to go undiscovered, but, in fact, tapirs are quite difficult to study in the wild. “A good friend of mine who was studying mountain tapirs — it took him forever to find his first tapir,” Dee says. “You find the tracks, the feces, you know they went through here, but you never see the actual thing.”
It wasn’t that no human had ever seen this animal; it was more a question of how closely scientists had looked. The indigenous people in Brazil and Colombia were certainly aware of it, and Teddy Roosevelt hunted one and brought it back to the United States in 1912, so there was a specimen at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. But scientists thought it was a variety of the Brazilian tapir. A paleontologist got the idea that something was up when examining tapir skulls about 10 years ago. Then a team followed up with genetic research with the help of local hunters. The new species, which is similar to the Brazilian tapir but smaller, is called Tapirus kabomani, after the name for “tapir” in the local language.
Tapirs and Their Habitat
Although tapirs are elusive, they’re essential to the forests they live in.
“Tapirs play a very important role as seed dispersers,” Smith says. “They will eat fruit, digest it and then ‘plant it’ farther away from the original source, in their manure — which provides a perfect microclimate for a new plant to establish and grow.”
Because seeds pass through the tapir’s digestive system intact and get carried to areas they wouldn’t otherwise reach, these animals are important to maintaining the diversity of the ecosystem. “Without tapirs, these plants wouldn’t be able to reproduce or grow in other areas,” Dee says.
So it’s a problem for these forests that all tapir species are included on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as either vulnerable or endangered. Habitat destruction is their biggest threat; human conflict and hunting in certain areas have also caused problems for some of the species.
“The area that our mountain tapirs originally came from back in 1969 in Sangay National Park — there’s agriculture all the way into the park now, so there are fewer and fewer animals,” Dee says.
“Malayan tapirs are losing huge amounts of habitat to palm oil plantations,” Smith adds.
Getting to Know Tapirs
Although tapirs are unfamiliar to many, Smith says, “They do have a huge cult following. Those that do know of them are infatuated.” And if you get interested in tapirs and start looking for photos of them in zoos, you’ll often see keepers getting very hands-on. Tapirs can be docile — sometimes.
“Almost all tapirs, in my experience, if you rub them underneath the chin and they’re standing, they will sit down like a dog, back feet first, and then they’ll slowly lay down and slowly roll down,” Dee says. “You can keep them down there for as long as you want as long as you keep scratching them.”
But they’re still wild animals — and they’re large, weighing about 660 pounds. They should never be kept as pets, and caution is imperative if you are ever around them. Tapirs have been known to seriously injure people, and mothers will defend their young fiercely. “They are very quiet and placid unless something frightens them, and then the ‘flight’ response kicks in and they will leave in a hurry,” Smith says. “They … do not go around things but straight through.”
For World Tapir Day, Smith hopes more people will become infatuated with these creatures. “They are unique, amazing animals, and I believe part of my job is to raise awareness of them and the threats they face in the wild — loss of habitat and human conflict — so that people can connect, be inspired and make a difference.”
To learn more about tapirs and the goals of World Tapir Day, visit tapirday.org.
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