Tapirs (TAY-purz) have muscular bodies that are powerful enough to push through thick jungle growth. Males are slightly smaller than females. The head is small with flat sides and a slight upward arch. The front trunk acts as a nose. Eyes are small and the ears are round and able to move on their own. The rump is flat. Tapirs are skinnier than rhinos, and their short legs are powerful.
The tapir’s weight rests on the third toe of each of the four feet. Hind feet are three-toed, while front feet are four-toed. In three of the four species, the coat is short; the mountain tapir has longer fur. Coat color varies and can be dun, a reddish brown color, whitish gray, coal black, and black-and-white two-tone. Newborns have horizontal stripes and dots for the first year.
Tapirs live in South America, Central America, and Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Sumatra.
With the exception of the mountain tapir, these mammals live in lowland rainforests and other moist forest regions. Mountain tapirs prefer cloud forests, tropical forests that are covered with constant clouds year-round, and paramo, treeless plateaus of tropical South America and the Andes Mountains. Lowland tapirs are found in grasslands and woodlands at lower elevations in South America. All tapirs swim and spend a good deal of time in rivers and lakes. Females often need secluded forests in which to give birth and raise their young.
Tapirs eat small branches and leaves as well as fresh sprouts. They pull the food from trees using their teeth and their mobile snout. They also eat fallen fruit and water plants. On mountains, they eat in a zigzag pattern and eat just a little bit from each plant. This method of eating keeps food plentiful. If food is out of reach, they will reach up, with hind feet planted firmly on the ground and front feet pushing against rocks or other natural objects. Lowland tapirs have been reported eating stranded fish in the Amazon. Tapirs tend to eat before the sun rises and after it sets.
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
Despite their bulk, tapirs are swift runners and agile climbers. They are able to climb and jump vertical fences or walls measuring 9.8 feet (3 meters) high. They are shy animals and depend on concealment, being hidden, for safety. For this reason, not much is known about their sleep habits. Some tapirs have been seen sleeping in the water. In fact, tapirs will spend extra time in the water during very hot weather, a habit that not only keeps them cool, but protects them from insects. They can even walk on the bottom of rivers and lakes for short periods of time.
Although tapirs prefer the dawn and dusk hours of the day, in densely populated areas the lowland tapir becomes strictly nocturnal, active at night, for its safety. Tapirs generally establish a central location and use the same paths to travel around time after time. They mark their territory with urine and piles of dung, or feces.
Tapirs are more social during the dry season and at full moons and interact at salt licks and river banks. This is also where courtship displays take place. These rituals include grunting and squealing. After a thirteen-month pregnancy, the female secludes herself and gives birth to a single calf. The calf hides in thick shrubbery for the first two weeks, feeding off the mother’s milk. After a few weeks, the calf begins foraging, or searching, for food with the mother, and begins to include the food in its diet. Calves nurse, or drink their mother’s milk, for up to one year. Though it is not certain, male tapirs in the wild seem to take responsibility for some of the calf-rearing. Tapirs are monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus), having only one mate, during the breeding season, but change partners from year to year.
Tapirs live about thirty years in the wild. Aside from humans, it is believed that their main predators include jaguars, pumas, leopards, tigers, and anacondas.
TAPIRS AND PEOPLE
The tapir is hunted for its skin, which is used to make leather goods. It is also hunted for its meat as well as other parts of its body, which are used to make medicine.
All four species are listed as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild, or Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild, due to habitat destruction and hunting.