8 fascinating facts you should know about tapirs

Tapirs are rather unusual-looking mammals, and they are absolutely amazing creatures.

An adult lowland can tapir in Brazil, South America. © Michael Nolan/Getty
1

How many species of tapir are there, and where do they live?

There are four extant (living) species of tapir, three of which are found in Central and South America, and the fourth is found in south-east Asia:

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  • Lowland tapir – Tapirus terrestris (also known as South American tapir and Brazilian tapir, found in tropical South America)
  • Baird’s tapir – T. bairdii (found in Central America and the north-west of South America)
  • Mountain tapir – T. pinchaque (found in the north-west of South America)
  • Malay tapir – T. indicus (found in south-east Asia)

In 2013, a new species of tapir was announced, the Kabomani tapir (T.kabomani). However, there is discussion amongst taxonomists as to whether it is a fifth species or misidentification of a juvenile lowland tapir.

A Baird's tapir in Costa Rica. © Mark Kostich/Getty
A Baird’s tapir in Costa Rica. © Mark Kostich/Getty
2

What are tapirs related to?

The tapir family, Tapiridae, belongs to the order Perissodactyla, which are the odd-toed ungulates. This taxon group also includes Equidae (the equids – such as horses and zebras) and Rhinocerotidae (the rhinos).

3

How do tapirs avoid predators?

Tapirs will often run into the water to escape from predators, and some species will also only poop in the water to avoid their scent being detected.

4

Can tapirs swim?

Tapirs are fast swimmers and will often use their trunk like snouts as a snorkel when diving deeper, closing their nostrils to avoid water getting in, however they mostly swim with their heads out of the water. They use a doggy paddle stroke or use the bottom of the lake to propel themselves along.

A lowland tapir in water. © Michaklootwijk/Getty
A lowland tapir in water. © Michaklootwijk/Getty
5

What do tapirs eat?

A tapir’s diet consists of fruit, berries and leaves in the wild, and they spend their waking hours foraging.

6

Why is the Malayan tapir black and white?

The Malayan tapir is the only extant species found in Asia, and is distinctively black and white which helps to break up its shape in the forest.

Two adult Malay tapirs (in captivity). © Musat/Getty
Two adult Malay tapirs (in captivity). © Musat/Getty
7

What do baby tapirs look like?

Tapirs are pregnant for around 13 months, and give birth to only one calf at a time. A healthy female tapir can reproduce every two years.

Baby tapirs are born covered in black, yellow and white strips and spots, which serves as camouflage against predation during these vulnerable first few months.

A juvenile lowland tapir in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest. © Ben Queenborough/Getty
A juvenile lowland tapir in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest. © Ben Queenborough/Getty

These stripes and spots slowly fade and are completely gone within five to six months. Tapir calves stay with their mothers for up to 18 months.

A young Malay tapir showing the fading stripes. © Dangdumrong/Getty
A young Malay tapir showing the fading stripes and spots. © Dangdumrong/Getty
8

Are tapirs endangered?

According to the IUCN Red List, three of the four species are listed as Endangered, and the other is listed as Vulnerable.

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  • Malayan tapir, T.indicus – Endangered
  • Mountain tapir, T.pinchaque – Endangered
  • Baird’s tapir, T.bairdii – Endangered
  • Lowland tapir, T.terrestris – Vulnerable
A Baird's tapir in Corcovado, Costa Rica. © David González Rebollo/Getty
A Baird’s tapir in Corcovado, Costa Rica. © David González Rebollo/Getty