On the Origin of a Species: Tapirs (Tapiridae)

Doing a monch! A Malayan tapir and calf (I think all tapir species’ babies have this gorgeous stripe-spot pattern) but…Look at these things. What is it? I don’t know? The unholy union of a dairy cow, an elephant and a rhino!? It doesn’t matter, it’s cute as anything. (Credit: MartinCanon via pxhere)

I’ve done a lot of talk of prehistoric species in my Caturday Specials recently. One of the things I talk about is how I love mammalian life during those times. Mammals were already coming into their own and finding a niche when dinosaurs still walked the earth, but after the extinction of those titanic lizards of fame and infamy mammals just got busy fucking and breeding, evolving and filling those gaps, exploiting those niches left behind.

The main bulk of mammal diversity is believed to have come from the Miocene, this is the period around 25 million up to about 5 million years ago, moving into the Pliocene and Pleistocene – both words I know you have heard here before. The Pliocene was a very short bridge between, roughly, 5 million years and 2.5 million years ago. The Pleistocene was then 2.5 million years ago up to around 12,000 years ago.

During these periods mammalian evolution went a bit batshit. Like a pilled-up raver at a nightclub, it was throwing shapes! Weird forms of animals just started turning up, all strange shapes and sizes. If you’ve ever been to a museum and seen a weird skeleton of a hippo that looks like a rhino standing on its hind legs, it came from that period. A horse the size of a cat? That period. Giant dog-shaped pigs? That period.

A model of a Paraceratherium sp. of the order Perissodactyla, same as the tapir, but this is effectively a giant, hornless rhino. It is currently the largest known land mammal to have existed because, back during the Oligocene (~35-25 million years ago) the regular massive rhinos we have today were not enough! This is why I love prehistoric mammal species! (Credit: Neil Kelley CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Which leads us to today’s species, the Tapiridae or tapirs.

Few modern mammals evoke that same ridiculous niche-filling spirit as the tapir. How does one describe a tapir? It’s  like an elephant-cow-pig-horse.

They are ‘Perissodactyla’ or odd-toed ungulates. To make it nice and difficult most tapirs still keep four toes on their front feet. Either way it sticks them in an order with the Equidae; horses and donkeys and that, and the Rhinocerotidae; not a trick name, it’s the rhinos.

Tapirs don’t just look prehistoric, as a family they are prehistoric! The fact that the species known today are divided between central and south America and Asia should be a good indication of either some migratory jiggeryfuckery or age.

The first tapirids likely evolved in the Eocene, the period approximately 55 million to 35 million years ago, in the Americas.

So the question, then, is why the fuck is there a small population of black and white versions of these gits in Asia?

A recreation of the now-extinct, Pleistocene Tapirus augustus, or giant tapir, of China. Tapirs were once a lot more disperse and are represented in the fossil record by around 15-16 extinct species. This one was quite a lot larger than many modern tapirs, with some estimates making it 3.5m long and 1.5m at the shoulder! (Credit: DiBgd CC-BY-SA 4.0)

We’ve spoken before of the land bridges, particularly ones that occur during glacial periods. Whether they be made of the glacial pack-ice itself or whether caused by the retreat of the oceans into ice exposing the shallowly submerged lands, such land bridges as Beringia allowed interchange of Asian and American wildlife and people.

Tapir fossils are found across Asia, and as far West in Europe (assuming a migration through an America-Asia land bridge…) as France.

Far from being a group specialised for a shy life in the moist forests of places like South America and Asia the tapir is a form that was once commonplace almost across the world. What’s more they mysteriously disappear and reappear in the fossil record! Perhaps they were nomadic or perhaps climatic conditions led to various local population extinctions and recolonisations? Who knows? Probably a tapir paleobiologist.

Either way now we have a solid 4 species of tapir left – three in the Americas and one in Asia.

A Malayan tapir in the wild in Malaysia. Their characteristic white saddle and little round ears make them look more like a Pokémon than a real animal! (Credit: Bernard DUPONT CC-BY-SA 2.0)

The Asian species, the Malayan Tapir or Asian Tapir (Acrocodia indica) is the beautiful, big, chonky, black tapir with that characteristic white saddle (although melanistic variants do occur, they are very rare, understudied and some argue are a subspecies.)

It has the basic tapir form, they all do! Imagine a tall pig with a cow’s head, and a tiny elephant’s trunk for a nose and you’ve actually got a pretty good picture of a tapir!

Reports of them from Thailand and Myanmar are now, sadly, uncommon. Mostly they are distributed across Sumatra and Malaysia.

Sleepy tapir mother and baby! This one shows the significance of the patterning on baby Malayan tapirs. As they age their saddle slowly pales becoming white, and they lose that distinctive infant patterning. (Credit: Paul Huber CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

They have few natural predators, tigers and leopards could possibly give them a run for their money but reports of their being hunted are uncommon and the single biggest problem for the tapir in Asia has been, like so many species, habitat loss, human encroachment and poaching. The habitat loss for agriculture or hydroelectric dams is likely their biggest enemy.

One interesting thing I have seen demonstrated at my local zoo with their Malayan tapirs is they communicate not only by scent (using their piss to mark a lot) but by whistling – and it really is a whistle! A high pitched whistling call, almost like you might use to signal for your dog, only held for longer. It’s remarkable to hear.

An excellent shot of a lowland tapir running. For as bulky and clumsy as they look tapirs are not only graceful swimmers but adept runners too. (Credit: Bill McDavid CC-BY-2.0)

The most common tapir to see in captivity is the South American, Brazilian or Lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris). These tapirs have a uniformly brown coat often with a little Mohawk of hair ridging down from the top of their head to their shoulders. It is the Amazon region’s largest land mammal, although most species of tapir could be considered semi-aquatic. They spend a lot of time in water, are graceful swimmers and sometimes use that prehensile snoot as a little snorkel.

Charming and curious animals, I absolutely could not leave out this shot of a lowland tapir attempting to bite a peacock’s tail at a zoo local to me. (Credit: Me)

Whilst in Asia tigers and leopards may leave tapirs alone for the most part, the Amazon has some bolder predators. Caiman and crocodiles will take a tapir but existing in a habitat with a big cat that’ll crack your skull means a South American jaguar is more likely than an Asian leopard to take one down! There are also anaconda to contend with and, let’s be honest, if it’s smaller than a house and an anaconda wants to eat it then it’s going to get those coils wrapped around it and squeeze the life out of it.

Another reason to love tapirs? Much like cats they flehmen! Where animals tend to draw back their lips and snout to take air into the ‘Jacobson’s Organ’ – a specific olfactory (smell) centre separate from the regular olfactory bulbs of the nose. This is a Baird’s tapir at Franklin Park Zoo in Boston having a good flehmen! (Credit: WolfmanSF, from Sasha Kopf, by GFDL)

Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii) is probably the next most well-known. These are the Central American tapirs native from southern Mexico, through Guatemala, Belize – through Central America and down as far south as Colombia, also potentially into Ecuador although this is disputed.

This is the largest of the American tapir species, so, like the Malayan tapir a full-sized adult is unlikely to be taken down by a predator. Large American crocodiles or jaguars may have a go, but many specimens of tapir are seen with the trademark scars of tooth and/or claw suggesting often the tapirs win the exchange, escape with their life and perhaps do some harm to the predator in the process.

A baby Baird’s tapir showing those textbook spots-and-stripes again. How fucking cute are these little guys!? (Credit: Brian Gratwicke CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Sadly what they can’t beat is habitat loss and poaching. With a relatively low and slow reproductive rate these tapirs are in a drastic decline and are endangered (it should be noted all tapir species are either vulnerable or endangered). Even though hunting may be uncommon even small losses can contribute heavily to their decline, especially with regards to the potential for inbreeding problems.

The mountain tapir. It’s thicker coat is obvious even from this image. It looks fluffier, woollier, giving it the nickname of the woolly tapir. Also, check the lippy! A mountain tapir wouldn’t be seen dead outside without its makeup on! (credit: David Sifry CC-BY-2.0)

Finally there’s the mountain tapir (Tapirus pinchaque). This is the smallest of the recognised tapir species and also one which provides some indication of how tapirs existed in Europe, living not in the rainforests as all the other species of tapir do, but in the mountain plains and cloud forests of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

These are also the floofiest tapirs, having thicker, darker, fur for dealing with the cooler mountain climate, leading to one of their other colloquial names, the woolly tapir. They have some white markings, including around their mouth which kind of makes it look like their ridiculously wearing white lipstick.

These are the most endangered tapir species, having a small range, requiring a specific habitat that is also incredibly easy for conversion to human activity and being a lot more out-in-the-open than other species. They are hunted with their body parts used in some local folk rituals, medicines and traditions as well as coming into conflict with agricultural farmers for eating crops. On top of this, there is the use of their habitats – deforestation, agriculture and mining. It’s basically a disaster for the mountain tapir.

A lot of the ‘wild’ photos of tapirs show the tapetum lucidum – the reflective film in the eyes. Many tapir species seem to be most active at dusk (crepuscular) or at night (nocturnal) and the tapetum lucidum helps them see in low-light conditions. These guys live at such altitude they don’t have to worry too much about jaguar, but cougar and spectacled bears have been known to hunt mountain tapirs. (Credit: Diego Lizcano CC-BY-2.0)

There are believed to be fewer than 2,500 left in the wild, the IUCN’s 2014 assessment concluded there had likely been a 50% decline in populations within the previous 33 years. Frankly, of the four species of tapir this is the one I expect to be declared ‘functionally extinct’ (i.e. their population is so low as to be unsustainable) at some point.

I love tapirs. I gave one reason earlier on, they are, to me, a modern day representative of the mad, weird, prehistoric forms and shapes of mammals past. I love all of that! I want the movie industry to make ‘Pleistocene Park’ because, well, if dinosaurs were so good how come they’re either dead or poultry? Huh!?

But there’s a personal reason as well. They became a species emblematic of a past relationship. Often when we think of stirring memories, these associations with times, jobs, experiences and people we go to the smells (very evocative, links straight to the emotional brain), sounds (likewise) or sights (less emotionally direct but vision is one of the most important senses for humans so we tend to form a lot of associations there).

A lowland tapir and baby. They’re so derpy looking but they represent so much of the best in nature and the worst in humanity. (Credit: Public Domain via pxhere)

We don’t tend to think of animals and yet…I do. I have people I know of by their favourite animal. Anyone who knows me to any extent knows I’m cat mad. You can tell someone who doesn’t know me well if they ask me the question “Do you mind if I show you pictures of my cat?”  – MIND!? I’d be positively pissed off if you had pictures of a cat and DIDN’T show me!

Going back to our half-naked, illiterate, innumerate past we see cave paintings of animals. This connection with the natural world, associations with animals – It has always been important to humans.

Yet we deplete them. We eradicate them. We outcompete them with little thought for the value they bring us not just in terms of ecosystem services (some tapirs are considered a keystone species for their seed dispersal) but just for their innate value, their emotional value, their existential value alone.

Tapirs I think represent that so well. We’ve bred animals like them that come in smaller packages, are more placid and give better meat, so we don’t need to hunt them. They’re not known to be aggressive unless threatened (and then, who isn’t!?) and many of their species are shy. They do not encroach on human habitats, humans encroach on theirs and then get upset when they interfere with ‘their’ crops or ‘their cow’s’ pasture. They’re fucking innocent. Yet, as mentioned, every species of tapir is vulnerable or endangered.

In some cases it’s hard. Asia is the centre of an environmentalist storm whereby the entire West has outsourced its production and factories there but now demands they keep it carbon-neutral and ‘green’. They build a hydroelectric dam and they’re damned if they don’t because we need renewable energy for the billions of people in Asia. They’re also damned if they do because it floods acre upon acre of habitat of these incredible species.

A Baird’s tapir in the wild in Costa Rica. It has clearly been collared so as to track the animal. Usually these collars cause no discomfort or disruption to the foraging of the animal and allow us to track their movement patterns, as well as potentially see when they have been killed and help us figure out how.
Most importantly, though…is that…is that tapir giving me the ‘bedroom eyes’? I think this tapir is DTF, you know!? (Credit: Brian Gratwicke CC-BY-NC 2.0)

These puzzles are hard to solve and take combined interdisciplinary effort to do so.

Tapirs are the poster animal, the pin-up, of how inconsiderate we can be that this isn’t even a scary predator, a delicious food or bother or harassment to our settlements and yet, there they are, declining by the decade and some species on the brink of extinction because – “Hey, I’ve got to make a living, right!?”

Something about how we live needs to change. Tapirs, and many other species (not least of which ourselves) depend on it.

Want to learn more about more species?
The Saltwater Crocodile is covered here

Or you can start our Top Ten Cats series

Or the Top Ten Sharks

Or perhaps the Top Ten Most Hated (but Misunderstood) Species

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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