GENUS & SPECIES: Malayan Tapir =
Tapirus indicus [Brazilian (Lowland) Tapir = T.
terrestris, Baird's Tapir = T. bairdi, Mountain
Tapir = T. pinchaque]
Order Perissodactyla refers to odd-numbered
[perissos (G)] fingers, or digits [daktylos
(G)]. In times past there were many more families and species
of Perissodactyls than there are now. Suborder Ceratomorpha,
which includes the Rhinoceros,
refers to keratin [keratos (G) = horn] and the
horn-shaped ones. The other Suborder is Hippomorpha and has
nothing to do with hippos. Hippo is Greek for "horse"
and hippopotamus (river horse) is a misnomer, since hippos are
4-toed and related to pigs and cows. There are two families in
Ceratomorpha: Rhinoceridae and Tapiridae.
"Tapir" is the native name for the animal. Indicus
means "of India," although "near India" is more like it. The
Brazilian tapir is better named the lowland, and
terrestris is "of the earth." Baird's is, of course,
named after a person, and pinchaque is rather obscure,
no etymology was found.
their kin have been around since Gondwanaland, which explains
why they are in Central and South America and clear on the
other side of the globe in Malaya.
The mountain tapir is in the Andes from Venezuela through
Peru, frequenting mountain forests and alpine meadows. All of
the other tapirs use tropical and semi-tropical forests,
especially the dense brush and vine-laden forests along
The lowland tapir is the most widely dispersed, using the
Venezuelan Pantanal (swampy grassland), across all of Amazonia
and river systems into Paraguay.
Baird's tapir is Central American south to Colombia and
It has been reported that a new tapir species was found in
Brazil, in the area of the new tamarin monkey (1998-99),
though it is not verified.
The Malayan tapir is distributed from Burma and
Thailand south onto Sumatra. It uses dense primary rain
Length: Malayan: 2.5 m; Mountain: 1.8 m; Tails - 2
to 4 inches
Height: Malayan: 1 m; Mountain: 75-80
Weight: Malayan: 250-300 kg (about 500 lbs);
Mountain: 225 kg
Large and somewhat pig-like, tapirs greatly resemble
rhinoceros, with which they share tapir-like common ancestry.
Tapirs actually have a fourth toe on the forelegs, but it is
small and does not touch ground except in mud. Eyes are small,
ears are large, and their distinctively mobile nose is upper
lip and nostrils combined, resembling a stubby elephant's
trunk. Raising the nose exposes the front teeth. Their feet
have callous pads behind the hooves (much like your dog's
foot) to support and distribute weight. Baird's tapir is the
largest New World mammal and the Malayan is the largest
Coloration: Tapirs are reddish brown to grey-brown,
the Malayan being black with white from behind the shoulders
across the flank and rump. Most tapirs have white edges on the
ears. Newborns are brown or red-brown with horizontal white
stripes and spots = the typical brown watermelon look. All but
the almost woolly Mountain are sparsely haired.
Wild - preferring green shoots, tapirs graze and
browse on brush, meadow and aquatic vegetation. They all will
eat fruit, but the Malayan is quite fond of it.
Zoo - alfalfa and oat hay
BEHAVIORS: When pursued, tapirs will dash through
dense vegetation. Paths through edge vegetation and thickets
are used and reused forming depressed paths and tunnels.
Tapirs are solitary and mark territory with dung piles and
sprayed urine, very similar to rhinos. They depend on their
sense of smell more than any other sense and they investigate
everything with their very sensitive nose. Dung and urine
marking usually indicates heightened olfaction.
Tapirs are crepuscular, adopting a more nocturnal pattern
when in close association with humans.
Tapir size and shape belies their agility. They climb quite
well, easily scrambling river banks and slopes. The mountain
tapir navigates rocky trails with ease. They gallop with
ADAPTATIONS: The body shape of tapirs is somewhat
comical to our human eyes, but suits the tapir's life-style
very well. The design is also seen in pigs, peccaries and
capybara, unrelated animals pushed by natural selection to
look alike; this is an example of convergent evolution. The
high, chunky rear and lower, tapered shoulders are the best
body shape for crashing zig-zag dashes through thick, brushy
growth. Their small eyes are set deep, well protected from
twigs and thorns.
The coloration of the young tapirs is obviously for
camouflage in dappled sunlight and leaf shadows. It fades
quickly and is usually gone by 6 months. The color of the NW
tapirs is conducive to blending with the shadows and tree
trunks of the dimly lit rainforest floor. The Malayan tapir's
striking color is actually excellent camouflage, effectively
breaking up the animal's outline. Standing in the forest gives
a different effect than standing in an open exhibit.
Tapirs are seldom far from water and are quite aquatic,
often taking to the water to avoid predation. The flexible
nose becomes a snorkel and tapirs can remain submerged for
quite a long time. Some of their aquatic behaviors are quite
hippo-like. The Malayan is known to walk across waterways on
the bottom. Bathing seems to trigger increased digestive
activity that brings on defecation in the water. They will
often deliberately enter the water to defecate.
BREEDING & GROWTH: Females come into estrous
every couple of months and males will investigate their urine
markers with the characteristic flehmen action. Courtship is
very horse-like, with a lot of squealing and nipping.
One calf is born after a gestation of about 390 days. It
begins to drift away after some 6 months but may stay with the
female for over a year. Tapirs mature at about 3 years of age.
A female may have another calf after 18 mos.
STATUS: All tapirs are considered vulnerable. The
Malayan is CITES listed as endangered.