At first glance, the tapir resembles an over-grown pig. It has a rounded stocky body, with short velvety fur
and a stumpy tail. Its claim to fame is as the largest terrestrial mammal in the Amazon rainforest. Reaching
550 pounds (250 kg) it is outweighed only by the manatee, which is aquatic. It belongs in the mammalian
order Perissodactyla so counts horses and rhinoceroses among its close relatives. Like the rhinoceros it has
three toed feet, with most of the weight on the middle toe. The eyes are small, as they're of limited
use in dark undergrowth, and the tapir relies on its acute senses of smell and hearing to find food and stay
out of trouble. Due to its mobile snout, the skull is modified, including an area in front of
the eyes that is indented to provide room for the complex of muscles that enable the snout to move like a
miniature trunk of an elephant (see Feeding and Diet). On the top of its thick neck
it bears an erect crest of stiff bristly hairs from the crown of the head to the shoulders. The fossil record
of tapirs suggest the species has remained more or less unchanged for 30 million years.
HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
Of the four species of tapir, three are found in the New World tropics, while the other is found in
southeast Asia. The only species found in the Amazon, is the Brazilian tapir (Tapirus terrestris).
Its range extends throughout lowland Amazonia, west to the Andean foothills up to 5500 feet (1700 m) and
east to the Atlantic forests. Its southern range ends with the high pampas of northern Argentina and
Paraguay. Tapirs prefer riverside habitats, marshy areas or secluded valleys rich with vegetation, but they
roam throughout the forest, able to clamber up steep hillsides. However, they're found in open savanna
where there is enough cover for hiding from predators. Tapirs move and feed mostly at night, resting up in
dense cover during the day.
BEHAVIOR AND PREDATION
Tapirs are rather solitary, although several individuals' ranges will overlap. They communicate with a
whistling call, or snorting in alarm. Tapirs' main natural predator is the jaguar, the only cat able to tackle a grown adult, although the puma (mountain lion)
may take juveniles. But even the jaguar has trouble taking on an adult tapir, which is twice its weight, so
the cats usually hunt the young. The tapir's keen sense of smell and hearing usually detect a prowling
cat long before it can approach close enough for a kill, and at a hint of danger, the tapir heads for the
nearest river or lakethere's not much that will stop a tapir barreling for water. There it swims
beneath the surface with only their nose snorkeling for air. If it manages to avoid typical hazards, a wild
tapir lives as long as 25 to 30 years.
FEEDING AND DIET
The tapir's distinctive snout is its main sensor in the search for food. This mobile proboscis acts like
a stunted elephant trunk, moving independently and highly sensitive to odors. In particular, smells of fruit
and flowers, soft green browse and aquatic plants are among the tapir's sought after delicacies. The
appendage can't grasp as effectively as an elephant's but it does help guide food toward the mouth.
Due to a rather inefficient digestive system, which relies on the fermentation of plant matter by symbiotic
microbes, the tapir spends most of its day eating. Its large flat-topped teeth are duly suited to the task.
Their dung is correspondingly comprised of half-digested straw and leaves, and other plant matter, so the
tapir plays an important part in the seed dispersal of many plant species.
Considering it is the largest land animal in South America, surprisingly little information is available on
the breeding habits of wild tapirs. According to the FAO webpage, oestrus seems to occur just before the
rainy season. After a gestation of 390 to 400 days, births should peak at the beginning of rainy season the
following year. Thus, females probably give birth every other year. A single young is born (twins may occur
in rare cases). The young are born developmentally advanced, able to follow the mother around shortly after
birth. The baby tapir is chocolate brown with beige spots and stripes which are lost in after a year or so.
Evidently, this pattern is effective camouflage in the dappled light of the forest floor. The adult is a
uniform brownish black or dark gray. Young do not stay long with the mother, and after eight to twelve
months assume their solitary lifestyle. By the age of three of four, tapirs reach sexual maturity.
Tapir meat ranks high among hunters's favored foods, so its not surprising that the animal is heavily
hunted near inhabited regions. Hunters imitate the tapir's whistling call and the animal thereupon
replies and is readily found and shot or trapped. It may be locally common but habitat degradation and
hunting are reducing its numbers. All the species are listed as endangered and are included in the CITES
Appendix. (What does this mean?) Tapir hunting is
illegal in most countries.