Tapir QuickReference

Introduction to Tapirs

Something of great mystique and controversy, the life of the tapir has only recently been explored, and yet much remains unknown and disputed about the reclusive and secretive creature. The tapir is a rather peculiar mammal, being a relative of the horse and rhinoceros but more closely reminiscent of a pig. Contrary to stereotypical images that may be assigned to it because of its pig-like appearance, however, the tapir is a strong and agile runner, an excellent climber, and an even better swimmer. Tapirs have excellent senses of hearing and sight and rely heavily on them in their forest habitat. Like the horse and rhinoceros, the tapir has three toes on its back feet and four toes on its front feet, with the toes on each foot splayed and capped with a hoof. And like the rhinoceros, the tapir has thick, hard, tough skin. Unlike the horse or rhinoceros, however, the tapir has its upper lip and nose lengthened into a short, flexible, prehensile proboscis which is covered at its tip with sensory vibrissae. Because of its seclusion in the tropical rain forests as well as mountains and because of its stealthy and surreptitious nature, it went largely unnoticed up until the first part of the nineteenth century.

Differences Among Tapir Species

Today only four species of tapirs remain: the woolly mountain tapir, the Brazilian tapir and [the] Baird’s tapir, which all live in the Americas, and the Malayan tapir, which lives on the Malayan peninsula. Among the four species there are differences in coloration as well as slight variations in body structure, but many more similarities exist between the species than differences. Focusing first on the differences: whereas any individual tapir can be larger or smaller than any other tapir, the Malayan tapir is generally larger than Baird’s tapir, which is generally larger than the Brazilian tapir, which is generally larger than the woolly mountain tapir. Depending upon its species and gender (female tapirs are larger), an adult tapir can be anywhere from six to eight feet long, stand three to four feet at the shoulder and weigh 350 to 800 pounds. All tapirs’ bodies are covered with fur but the woolly mountain tapir differs from the other three species in that it has longer fur that is about one inch long. This adaptation keeps it warm even at the high altitudes at which it dwells.

Habitat Preferences

However, despite such species differences, all tapirs prefer the same basic habitat. While tapirs will tolerate relatively dry forest, on the whole they prefer relatively tropical and wet or at least transitional forest. The Brazilian tapir prefers a temperature of around twenty-seven degrees Celsius and a relative humidity of seventy-five percent. The woolly mountain tapir generally lives at higher altitudes than the other tapirs and so is used to cooler temperatures, but still lives within the tropics and areas which receive much precipitation, as do the other tapirs. Another thing that tapirs share in common is their feet; all tapirs have four toes on each front foot and three toes on each back foot which are splayed and capped with hooves, allowing them to walk more easily on soft and muddy ground.


All tapirs take advantage of a type of camouflage called disruptive coloration for one point in their lives. Simply put, disruptive coloration breaks up the outline and distinctive shape of an animal’s body to make it less recognizable to predators. Two particularly good examples of the tapir’s disruptive coloration are the Malayan tapir and the baby tapir. In the daylight, the Malayan tapir looks as if a white saddle-blanket has been draped over its dark black body. It may seem as if the Malayan tapir’s “creative” coloration would be more of a detriment than a benefit, but it is quite effective in practice. The tapir is generally active in the twilight hours at dusk and dawn but not during the day. It is both because of this peculiar circadian rhythm of the tapir and its distinct body shape that this coloration, which would seem to make the tapir stand out, actually succeeds in giving the tapir a greater degree of protection. Baby tapirs are another good example as they are born with a pattern of whitish stripes and spots over their otherwise brownish coat of fur. After eight months, the tapir loses its stripes and dots to the standard coloration of its species. Of the four tapir species, the adult woolly mountain tapir is the only tapir to not take advantage of disruptive coloration. The woolly mountain tapir usually has a coat which is, depending up its locality, uniformly colored coal black to a reddish brown. The only deviation from its uniform coat is a thick line of white around its mouth that makes the tapir’s mouth look like a clown’s. The Brazilian tapir has a uniform coat which can range from tan to red to brown to black and has darker fur on its underside, cheeks, and legs and lighter fur around its throat and the edges of its ears. Oddly enough, there is general disagreement as to whether the Brazilian tapir has any sub-species. Because more color variation is found in the Brazilian tapir than in the other tapirs, some scientists speculate that the Brazilian tapir actually has several sub-species. The Baird’s tapir is usually colored gray to brown to black and has a patch of white on its throat, chest, and face, along with a distinct dark spot on each cheek, several inches below the eye. Generally, when combined with other observations, the coloration of a tapir can be used to fairly easily differentiate between species. In the end, though, identification is not the primary purpose of coloration but camouflage and added safety from predators.

Eating Habits

As in many other cases the tapir has found a way to get around the problems that it faces. First of all, it is very time and energy consuming for animals to make and maintain the large enzymes needed to break down the toxins found in the various plants that they feed upon. To get around this, tapirs have devised a quite clever and inventive solution. By nibbling on an incredibly wide variety of plants and not gorging on any single plant when they feed, tapirs minimize the effects of any one plant’s toxins. Using this method while they graze, tapirs have no need of any fancy or highly specific enzymes. The tapir is generally an herbivore, as the diet consists of fruits, leaves, stems, sprouts, small branches, grasses, tree bark, cane, melon, cocoa, rice, corn from plantations, and even aquatic plants, but the tapir will also eat aquatic organisms which it will even walk along the bottom of a stream or river for. Dispite this widely varying diet, the majority of the tapir’s diet consists of green shoots from common plants. As it is browsing, the tapir uses its proboscis to determine what smells “right” and sometimes uses it like an elephant does, to draw twigs and leaves into its mouth.

The Tapir’s Importance as a Seed-Disperser

Because of its feeding habits, the tapir is also an integral part of its ecosystem. The tapir is a vital seed disperser, and these seeds are what keep the tapir’s habitat healthy, actually preventing the ecosystem from deteriorating. It was only recently that the tapir’s role in dispersing seeds was realized. Despite this, all tapirs are endangered and may become extinct before we get a chance to fully realize their importance. The woolly mountain tapir is the most endangered of all tapirs as only 1,000 and 2,500 remain. According to some estimates, it may become extinct in only five years. Currently, the woolly mountain tapir is the least studied of all the tapirs, yet it may disappear before we have a chance to fully understand or appreciate its importance in its forest environment.

Reproduction and Young

It is not completely agreed whether tapirs mate for life, but most sources do agree that they are generally solitary animals excluding the mating “season”. During the mating seasons, which there is no set time for, tapirs attract mates through a series of squealing and clicking calls. Estrus occurs in the females at intervals of 50 to 80 days and lasts only two days. When they mate, tapirs seem just as comfortable mating in a stream or river as on land. After mating, the mates do not stay together long. Females may go eleven to fifteen months before giving birth. Twins are uncommon. After the baby is born, the mother will nurse and care for it for only six to eight months, by which time the youngster will have been weaned and the mother will have stopped producing milk. As mentioned earlier, baby tapirs are not born with the coloration of their parent but with a pattern of white stripes and spots which eventually fade into their species’ coloration. Solid food becomes part of the young tapir’s diet after only a few weeks. At eighteen months, a young tapir’s growth is completed and females reach their sexual maturity at only twenty-three months. At the other extreme, the oldest known breeding individual was a captive female of twenty-eight years. As with any other organism, tapirs eventually die. Captive tapirs have been known to live for up to thirty-five years, although it is estimated that the average age in the wild is about thirty years. Both the long gestation period and the fact that usually only one young is born that make the tapir’s population more easily depleted by poachers than other animals which bear more young more often, such as rabbits. Research indicates that for a population of tapirs to sustain itself, it should consist of at least 1,000 individuals in a contiguous sector with an intact ecosystem, but many tapir populations are fragmented into separate “pockets” of less than 1,000, suggesting that the tapir is in dire need of human assistance if it is to survive.

Circadian Rhythm

Tapirs begin their “day” by coming out of hiding at or slightly after dusk to forage for food and swim. After feeding and possibly bathing, they will often go to sleep and doze through the middle of the night only to wake up before dawn to feed and bathe again. During the day tapirs usually remain “in hiding.” Tapirs obviously do not always follow this circadian rhythm exactly and may even be active during the day or middle of the night, but they normally adhere to it fairly closely. Being excellent swimmers, tapirs spend much of their time in the water. Tapirs also take regular, if not daily, waterbaths and mudbaths which serve to rid their skin of parasites. Unlike many other animals which follow regular “game trails” in their daily movements, tapirs often do not follow a beaten trail and simply blaze their way through the forest with their head down.


Not much is known about the territoriality any species of tapirs, but it is thought that they have slightly overlapping ranges. Males urinate at particular spots, presumably as a way to communicate with conspecifics. Males may also possess a facial gland that they use to scent mark, but this is not known with certainty. Although its function has not been determined, tapirs have the odd habit of defecating in streams or rivers. There may be as many as ten distinct vocalizations that tapirs use to communicate with one another. One definite vocalization that has been observed is a “click” which may be used to identify conspecifics. Tapirs also use a shrill call to signal fear, pain, and appeasement. A “snort” is used to signify aggression. Overall, though, while certain vocalizations have been observed by those studying tapirs, their meanings are not decidedly clear.

Defense Adaptations

The only creatures that tapirs need fear are jaguars, leopards, tigers, crocodilians, and humans. On the Malayan peninsula, leopards and tigers assume the role of natural predator, while in Central and South America jaguars and crocodilians assume the role. In any case, if a tapir has access to water when confronted by a predator, it can make a good escape. In many cases, though, tapirs can deter predators with their thick hide and by snapping and kicking. Despite their seemingly peaceful demeanor, tapirs have powerful jaws that present a formidable threat. Because of their size and strength, a kick from a tapir can also present a threat considerable enough to turn away a predator. If a predator is willing to still try to kill a tapir, it also has the tapir’s thick, tough hide to deal with. When confronted by poachers with dogs and no easy escape, a tapir can even seize a dog in its teeth and shake it furiously. The Brazilian tapir goes to even further lengths to deter predators, as it sports a tall sagittal crest that runs from its neck to its mid-back and offers additional protection against jaguars. It is not a tapir’s natural enemies which present it with the greatest threat but humans. Even easy access to water does not guarantee a tapir safety if confronted by poachers with guns, as is unfortunately often the case.

In Captivity

Tapirs are easily domesticated and when captured young, they quickly become docile. One source stated that tapirs do not show any response to kindness, and while not inclined to leave a comfortable shelter, will not show particular interest in any one person. Once domesticated the tapir is not apt to bite and a shrill hissing cry is the extent of its anger when hurt or teased. A tapir will even return after being set out into the forest once it is domesticated. Curiously enough, for reasons which are not apparent, in captivity the tapir has been noted for being a glutton, gorging itself on whatever it is given and as much as it is given, whether the same thing or not, a behavior which is in direct opposition to what is known about its feeding behavior in the wild. This discrepancy gives sufficient reason for any observations in captivity to be accepted as unreliable and possibly unrepresentative of tapirs’ behavior in the wild, making the study of tapirs even more difficult.


To conclude, tapirs represent amazing adaptations which in turn make them an essential part of their own environment. However, because of their quiet and secretive nature and their remote locality, tapirs have remained hidden and virtually unknown in human circles for thousands of years. Even today, little is known about the tapir or its environment. While the tapir’s unique adaptations have helped it to survive in its environment, as in many other cases, human activity and technology has led to the decline of the magnificent animal, and the tapir may disappear before its importance is fully understood. If more effort is not taken on the part of humans to study the tapir so as to be able to better protect it, the tapir may disappear forever into history and obscurity, further abetting the deterioration and destruction of the tropical rain forests in the process.