April 27th celebrates World Tapir Day, mobilizing awareness of tapirs worldwide and efforts to protect them. Represented by four species globally, tapirs are some of the most unusual and least known species in the rainforest. However, before we have begun to learn much about these incredible animals, many tapir species are being pushed to the edge of extinction.
[crb_slide image=”https://www.rainforesttrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Steve-Winter.jpg” credits=”A Lowland Tapir triggers a night time camera trap in Brazil’s Pantanal. Photo by Steve Winter” title=”” text=””]
Resembling pigs with trunks, tapirs are actually related to horses and rhinoceroses. Belonging to an ancient order of animals known as Perissodactyla, (which means animals with strange toes), tapirs have changed little over millions of years. Fossils from the Eocene, over 20 million years ago, give evidence that ancient tapirs were once found in Europe, North America, and Asia.
During this period, tapir diversity was at an all-time high. Over time, most ancient tapir species died out – likely due to competition with other herbivores. However, three tapir species crossed the Central American land-bridge into the southern continent three million years ago. The fourth got stuck in Asia, separated by ice ages and continental drift.
Today tapirs are represented by four species – three found in Central and South America and one in Southeast Asia.
[crb_slide image=”https://www.rainforesttrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Diego-Lizcano2.jpg” credits=”Lowland Tapir. Photo by Diego Lizcano” title=”” text=””]
With adults able to grow over 800 pounds, the Malayan Tapir is the largest and only remaining species in Asia. Distinguished by their size and striking black and white piebald coloration, Malayan Tapirs live in the lowland rainforests of Sumatra, Malaysia, Thailand, and Burma. They are classified as Endangered throughout their range.
In Latin America, the most numerous species is the lowland or South American tapir. Distributed widely across South America, this species also lives in lowland rainforests and is classified as Vulnerable. Further North, Baird’s tapir range across much of Central America from Southern Mexico to Panama. Classified as Endangered, these tapirs live in a variety of habitats ranging from dry forests to misty cloud forests.
The rarest and most endangered tapir species is the Mountain tapir. Also known as the Woolly tapir, they live in the frigid high altitudes of the Northern Andes and are named for their warm and protective coats. Mountain tapirs are the smallest and least known of tapir species. With an estimated population of less than 2,500 and declining, they are classified as Endangered.
Averaging several hundred pounds as adults, tapirs have little to fear from most predators. Designed like a tank, they can crash headlong into the undergrowth dashing would-be attackers against trees. Sporting powerful jaws and sharp canine teeth, they also pack a painful bite. Despite these intimidating traits, tapirs are actually shy and retiring vegetarians.
Using their prehensile, trunk-like noses, they clean leaves off branches and pluck choice fruits from overhanging limbs. Faithful to rivers and mud wallows, tapirs feed in the morning and evening following well-worn trails through the rainforest undergrowth.
In the heat of the day, they often retire to the water to cool off. Submerging themselves, they leave nutrient rich dung balls and are often cleaned by small fish that congregate around them cleaning parasites off their thick hides. Due to these behaviors, scientists have found that tapirs play an important role in the freshwater ecology of tropical forests.
[crb_slide image=”https://www.rainforesttrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Diego-Lizcano.jpg” credits=”Today fewer than 2500 Mountain Tapirs exist in the wild. Photo by Diego Lizcano” title=”” text=””]
Similarly, tapirs play an important role on land. Just as elephants shape the plains of Africa, tapirs influence the structure and composition of the tropical forests in which they live. Every day, they gulp down saplings, selectively prune trees and vacuum up fruit and seeds from the forest floor. As they roam they deposit consumed seeds, promoting future plant growth and playing a vital role as seed dispersers across the forest.
Despite the disproportionately important role tapirs play in forest ecosystems, they remain amongst the most poorly studied mammals on Earth. Just as science begins to learn more about these fascinating animals, they face extinction. Today, all four of the world’s tapir species are endangered or vulnerable, due to hunting and habitat loss.
Tapirs are weird, wonderful, and in need of more protection.
All four species are found in a number of Rainforest Trust’s project sites, including current projects in Sumatra’s Bukit Tigapuluh Ecosystem, where the Malayan Tapir lives, and in several past project sites in Latin America such as Peru’s Sierra del Divisor National Park, home to Lowland Tapirs.
This World Tapir Day, learn how you can help protect the tapir’s rainforest habitat in Sumatra.