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Malayan Tapir

Malayan tapir

CLASS: Mammalia

ORDER: Perissodactyla


FAMILY: Tapiridae

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.


Tapirs and 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 waterways.

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 western Ecuador.

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 forest.


Length: Malayan: 2.5 m; Mountain: 1.8 m; Tails - 2 to 4 inches
Height: Malayan: 1 m; Mountain: 75-80 cm
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 tapir.

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 impressive speed.

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.




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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.


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