Lowland tapir swimming - Tapirs Described - The Tapir Gallery - Discussion of the four tapir species - Photo by Audrey Jakab

The Tapir Gallery

Tapirs Described

A chorus line of tapirs
Tapirus indicus
Tapirus pinchaque
Tapirus terrestris
Tapirus bairdii
Drawing by
Robert A. Wilson
Photo by Sheryl Todd,
taken at
The Los Angeles Zoo
"Stanley K. Tapir,"
Drawing by
Robert A. Wilson
"April," the tapir in
The Belize Zoo

What has 14 hooves, a rubbery snout and walks under water?

Four species of tapir exist on the planet today. All are closely related, although the Asian (often called Malayan) tapir lives in Southeast Asia, while the other three live in the Americas. The Baird's tapir lives in Mexico and Central America, and has been found in the northernmost areas of Colombia; the lowland (often called Brazilian) tapir lives in the rain forests of South America; and the mountain tapir lives in the high cloud forests and paramos of the northern Andes of Colombia and Ecuador. The tapirs are related to the primitive horse and to the rhinoceros. Prehistoric tapirs inhabited Europe, North America and Southeast Asia, including China, with no remains having been found on the continents of Africa, Australia, or Antarctica. Ancient tapirs would not have looked much different from their cousins of the present day, although their noses didn't grow to the present length until the last few million years. Although we don't know much about their ancient migration patterns, tapirs did migrate from Central to South America across the Panamanian Land Bridge about 2-3 million years ago.

All baby tapirs have striped-and-spotted coats for camouflage, and while they appear at first glance to be alike, there are some differences among the patterns of different species. Most baby tapirs weigh approximately 15-25 pounds at birth.

Baird's tapir on the Tapir Gallery Web Site - click to learn more about Baird's tapirs
Baird's tapir
Mountain tapir on the Tapir Gallery Web Site - click to learn more about mountain tapirs
Mountain tapir
Asian tapir on the Tapir Gallery Web Site - click to learn more about Asian (or Malayan) tapirs
Asian tapir
Lowland tapir on the Tapir Gallery Web Site - click to learn more about lowland (or Brazilian) tapirs
Lowland tapir

There are probably more similarities between species than differences, once we ignore the superficial aspects of color and shape, and at least one species combination has been known to interbreed. All have a similar basic body shape and a short, flexible proboscis. All prefer a wet climate and usually live near water, although sometimes they are found in comparatively dry forests. The splayed feet, with four toes on each front foot and three on each back foot, help them walk in muddy and soft ground. Tapirs have been variously described as having brown eyes or having eyes with a bluish cast to them (seen here). Recently, the bluish cast so often described in the literature has been found to be corneal cloudiness, often caused by excessive exposure to light.

Tapirs like to bathe, and will make treks to pools and rivers for this purpose. All are dense and bulky with hard, tough skin. They swim well, climb well, and bulldoze paths through the vegetation of their habitats - vegetation on which they also browse for their main food source. They tend to feed in the early or late hours of the day, often before the sun comes up and after it sets. Thus they would be called "crepuscular" rather than truly nocturnal. Commonly, they sleep during the middle part of the night. However, this is not a hard-and-fast rule, and they can be active at any hour.

We don't know a lot about where tapirs sleep, either. Tapirs don't build houses, but they find sheltered places in the jungle or forest. Sometimes these will be partially hidden by bushes or trees, and we think they chose the location so that they can smell another animal or human coming. Some tapirs are said to sleep on ridges in the Andes where they get a good draft of wind for scenting. Other tapirs have been seen to actually sleep in the water, in shallow pools of a stream, usually partly on the stream bank and partly in the water. Apparently they often pick spots that may keep them cool in the heat or afford a way to detect enemies. They seem to return to their sleeping places and use them again, but we don't know if they always sleep in the same place, or how and when the choose a sleeping area.

The natural lifespan of a tapir is approximately 30 years, and a single youngster is born after a gestation of about 13 months. Twins have been noted, but rarely, and the only ones I know of have been lowland tapirs. As far as I know to date, tapirs are generally territorial with partially overlapping ranges, with the males probably being more territorial than the females. They may possibly mate for life under the best circumstances. At times small tapir family groups are seen in the wild - most often a mother and offspring. It used to be said that they were solitary animals, but new research is showing that pairs may stay together. We don't know this for sure, but it appears more and more likely. Tapirs can also be seen in groups at mineral licks. Tapirs have keen hearing and a keen sense of smell. They are also strong and agile runners, and tend to evade preditors or deter them with their tough hides and by snapping and biting. (Tapirs are extremely muscular, with strong jaws.) They will also run to water when threatened.

Male and female tapirs are not designated by words such as "cow" and "bull," but are simply called "male" and "female." This was the consensus of a discussion on the Tapir Talk e-mail list where 200 professionals were consulted in about 2001. A baby tapir, however, is a calf. Baby tapirs are "hiders." For the first few weeks of their lives, the mother will make the sure the baby is hidden in thick foliage in the forest while she leaves to browse. When she returns, she nurses the baby, always lying down to do so. After a few weeks, the baby begins to follow the mother, mouthing leaves and fruit alongside her, but the minstay of the baby's diet is milk for a number of months, and it may continue to nurse for up to a year or more. The baby can swim well at a very early age. The role of the father in the family and in rearing the young is not clearly determined, but in the few cases in captivity where pairs have been kept together throughout the birth and early rearing process, the father seems to take an active role in watching the youngster and allowing it to learn from his behavior. This also seems to give the mother a break. Observations in the wild are few and far between, but literature may soon be available to shed light on these interactions and on family groupings. It is also still somewhat of a mystery about how long the young stay wsith their parents and how far away they will disperse as they grow up. This is an exciting time for tapir research, as the behvior of these secretive animals is finally being studied.

Humans are the tapir's most dangerous enemy. All species are now endangered due to hunting, encroachment by humans, and habitat destruction, but the mountain tapir and Asian tapir are the most seriously threatened of the four. It has been said in the past that pumas and jaguars prey on tapirs in Central and South America (in the Andes it would be pumas and spectacled bears), and that tigers and leopards prey on them in Southeast Asia, but there is some debate as to whether a large cat (or bear) can kill a healthy adult tapir. Large cats will pursue and attack them, but because tapirs have thick skin and good defenses, probably the cats are usually able to kill only a young, very old, sick, or disabled tapir. Research is still being done on this interesting question.

Some of the differences among species are noted below:

Baird's tapir: Living furthest north in the Americas (Mexico, Central America, northenmost part of Colombia), Tapirus bairdii is the largest of the American species, although smaller than the Asian tapir. It can weigh up to about 700 pounds. The color is usually grey or grey-brown with a comparatively large patch of cream color on its throat, chest and face. It has a distinct dark spot on each cheek, several inches below the eye. It can most readily be differentiated from the lowland tapir because its neck is plain (about the shape of that of a dog, cow or pig), rather than crested, as in the lowland species.

Lowland or Brazilian tapir: This species, Tapirus terrestris, inhabits not only Brazil, but much of the wet jungle area of South America. Its range is from Colombia through most of South America south to Paraguay and northern Argentina. Its most prominent feature is the crest or ridge developed along the back of its neck, possibly as a protection from jaguars. This gives its face somewhat of a sculptured or concave look. Its coloration is normally tan to brown, and it has more color variation among individuals than the other three species. Some of these variations may represent subspecies, but no general agreement has been reached on that point. The lowland tapir tends to be a bit smaller than the Baird's tapir, but larger than the mountain tapir. Sizes are relative, though, and an individual of any of these species can be on the small or large side, overlapping the size of other species. An adult might weigh about 400 to 500 pounds.

Mountain or woolly tapir: This animal, Tapirus pinchaque, lives in the Andes, in the cloud forests and paramos of Colombia, Ecuador and possibly northern Peru. Scientists have not concluded whether there are any mountain tapirs left in Peru. It is seriously threatened and nearing probable extinction unless destructive trends in its homeland are reversed. In shape, this species resembles the Baird's tapir more closely than it does the Brazilian, although it's impossible to mistake it for either of the others due to its longer, dark hair (about an inch long) and the clear white markings around its lips. It tends to be a bit smaller than the lowland tapir, typically weighing about 325 pounds. The mountian tapir's coloring ranges from coal black to reddish brown, depending on the area in which they live, according to Craig Downer.

Asian or Malayan tapir: Tapirus indicus used to inhabit much of Southeast Asia, including the countries of Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, but in recent times it has become extinct in parts of its former range, due to human activity. You can easily tell this species from its cousins by the coloring and size. The hair on the front part of its body as well as on its legs is black, while it wears a striking white "saddle-blanket" from its shoulders on back over its rump. It is the largest and bulkiest of the tapirs after its first year, tipping the scales at up to about 800 pounds or even more.

Further information:

Focus on the Baird's tapir

Focus on the lowland tapir

Focus on the mountain tapir

Focus on the Asian tapir

Especially for Students
You'll find some important information links here.

This page in The Tapir Gallery links to online reprints and also tells you where to obtain reprints on paper.

Other tapirs on the Web
See this page for lots of links!

All tapirs are endangered species.
Saving tapirs helps save the rainforest.

Photo at top of page © 2000 Audrey Jakab

|| The Tapir Gallery Opening Page ||

Write to us: tapir@tapirback.com