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14 Terrific Facts About Tapirs

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Their noses are snorkels. They plant trees with their poop. They walk underwater. Meet a group of remarkable mammals who look sort of like pigs but are related to horses, and once lived around the world: the tapirs.

1. TAPIRS CAN GET PRETTY HEAVY.

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Tapirs aren’t very tall—the largest doesn’t quite reach 4 feet at the shoulder—but they are rotund. The Malayan tapir, the only species native to Asia, can weigh 720 pounds or more. The other four species are smaller. In 2013, scientists described a new species, the kabomani tapir, which is the littlest, weighing an estimated 240 pounds or so.

2. THEY CAN GRAB THINGS WITH THEIR SNOUTS.

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Tapirs’ upper lips are stretched out into long snouts that resemble elephant trunks. These flexible mini-trunks are prehensile, which means that they can grasp things—for example, a tapir may use its snout to pluck tasty leaves or put fruit in its mouth. Sometimes, a swimming tapir may even poke its snout out of the water and use it as a snorkel.

3. THEY MAKE THIS FACE. 

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Tapirs often curl their lips and raise their snouts, making a funny-looking face. What’s going on here? Is the tapir just really happy? Or is it about to sneeze? 

This weird behavior has a name: it’s called the flehmen response. Giraffes, horses, house cats, and many other animals do it too—but it looks more impressive with a tapir’s snout. When these animals curl their upper lips, they’re using an extra-powerful sense somewhere between taste and smell. The action opens up a pair of ducts in their mouths to send material up into a special sensory body called the vomeronasal organ.

Often, critters make this face to glean extra info about other members of their species from substances such as urine. Just don’t try it yourself: you lack the equipment. Humans have lost those special ducts and vomeronasal organs.

4. BABY TAPIRS LOOK NOTHING LIKE ADULTS.

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Though adult tapirs aren’t very colorful, baby tapirs are covered in vivid spots and zebra stripes. This pattern probably helps obscure their shape in the underbrush, enabling them to hide from predators such as big cats. Many other animals are speckled when they’re young, but lose their spots as they get older. For example, a lot of deer (think of Bambi) have speckles that fade with age.

5. TAPIRS HELP FORESTS THRIVE … WITH THEIR POOP.

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Tapirs eat plants—and beyond that, they’re not picky. They live in warm, dense forests with diverse vegetation, and they’ll graze on grass, browse tree leaves, and chomp on twigs. Fruits and berries are an important part of their diet, too. And here’s where the poop comes in: Many seeds can survive the trip through tapirs’ digestive systems. As tapirs wander through the forest munching fruit, they poop out the seeds, spreading them to new locations.

One study found that 135 samples of lowland tapir dung contained seeds from an astonishing 122 plant species. Unintentionally, tapirs help disperse seeds from their favorite fruit trees, which means more fruit for tapirs—and other animals. 

6. THEY HAVE SURPRISING RELATIVES.

Take a look at a picture of a tapir. Can you tell where it fits in the animal kingdom? Despite its snout, it’s not closely related to the elephants. And though it’s pretty portly, it’s not a pig or a hippopotamus.

Stumped? It turns out that tapirs’ closest relatives are rhinoceroses and horses. They all belong to a group called the “odd-toed” mammals—they have an odd number of toes (as opposed to an even number). Horses walk on one hoofed toe, and rhinos walk on three toes. Just to be confusing, tapirs have three toes on their hind feet and four on the front. And their feet look pretty weird

7. TAPIRS CAN WALK UNDERWATER.

Tapirs love the water. They’re terrific swimmers and divers, and they enter water to cool off, dine on aquatic plants, avoid predators, and have sex. They can also walk—pretty quickly, even—on the bottom of a river or lake, as in the end of the video above.

8. DON’T FIGHT A TAPIR. 

Tapirs may look like fuzzy, gentle plant-eaters. They’re typically very shy, and when they’re scared, they’re likely to flee.

But tapirs have a tough side. These animals are unpredictable and will fiercely defend themselves and their young, sometimes maiming or even killing people. In one high-profile case, the former Costa Rican Minister of Environment and Energy was attacked by a mother tapir when he tried to get a close look at her baby.

The bottom line? Tapir attacks are very rare, but you should always treat these animals with respect and give them the space they need to feel safe and comfortable. 

9. THEY’RE PRETTY THICK-SKINNED, TOO. 

Compared to their relatives, tapirs may seem defenseless. They lack a rhino’s horns or a horse’s speed. However, they have a very tough hide that helps protect them from predators and prevent injury as they push through dense forest. And though they may not look furry, tapirs are covered in short hairs. Mountain tapirs have especially thick fur to help them stay warm up in the mountains. 

10. THEY WHISTLE.

You might expect tapirs to bellow or moo. But no, they make a high-pitched sound that the San Diego Zoo describes as “car brakes screeching to a halt”. When annoyed, they will also stamp their feet and snort. 

11. THEY ARE CREATURES OF THE SHADOWS.

Tapirs are active at night. Specifically, they’re crepuscular. This term refers to dawn and dusk, and in zoology, animals that are most active at those times—like the tapir.

During twilight, these mammals will push happily through the dark forest looking for tasty plants.

12. THE MALAYAN TAPIR IS THE ODD ONE OUT.

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All tapir species—except one—live in Central and/or South America. But the Malayan tapir lives all the way around the world in Southeast Asia. How did that one species wind up so far away from its closest cousins? 

Tapirs are part of an ancient lineage that’s about 50 million years old. They once roamed many parts of the world, with tapirs happily munching leaves in Europe, North America, and China. But as temperatures cooled and the continents continued to shift, tapirs’ warm forests shrunk and moved south. 

These changing conditions prompted some animals to adapt to new habitats, such as the grasslands that now covered much of the land. But tapirs were creatures of habit. They stuck with their forests, remaining relatively unchanged for millions of years. So, today’s tapirs are the last survivors of a once internationally successful group.

13. TAPIRS ARE IN TROUBLE.

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Here’s the bad news: all tapirs are facing serious threats to their survival. 

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, Baird’s tapir is classified as Endangered due to habitat loss and hunting; the population has more than halved in recent decades. The Endangered mountain tapir is in a similarly dire situation. Hunting, habitat loss, and competition for livestock are driving down numbers of the lowland tapir, which is labeled Vulnerable. And the sole Asian species, the Malayan tapir, is also Endangered.

But there’s still time to save tapirs. The IUCN’s Tapir Specialist Group offers some ways to help, including supporting conservation groups and visiting tapirs on ecotourism trips.

14. HOW DO YOU PRONOUNCE “TAPIR,” ANYWAY?

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While you’ve been reading this article, how have you been pronouncing “tapir” in your head? If you’re feeling uncertain about the pronunciation, don’t worry—you’re not alone.

The word tapir comes from the language of Brazil’s indigenous Tupi people, who called it “tapyra.” These days, English-speaking people seem to say it at least four different ways: 1. ta-PEER, 2. TAY-per (so that it sounds like “taper”), 3. TAY-peer and 4. TAY-pyer

So, which one is correct? That’s hard to say. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary suggests three pronunciations, as does this YouTube pronunciation series. Wikipedia has two pronunciations. This video from the Zoological Society of London is firmly in the TAY-pyer camp, but this one from National Geographic uses TAY-per. And, of course, Ze Frank loves his ta-PEER. The debate rages on.

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How a Pregnant Rhino Named Victoria Could Save an Entire Subspecies
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
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The last male northern white rhino died at a conservancy in Kenya earlier this year, prompting fears that the subspecies was finally done for after decades of heavy poaching. Scientists say there's still hope, though, and they're banking on a pregnant rhino named Victoria at the San Diego Zoo, according to the Associated Press.

Victoria is actually a southern white rhino, but the two subspecies are related. Only two northern white rhinos survive, but neither of the females in Kenya are able to reproduce. Victoria was successfully impregnated through artificial insemination, and if she successfully carries her calf to term in 16 to 18 months, scientists say she might be able to serve as a surrogate mother and propagate the northern white rhino species.

But how would that work if no male northern rhinos survive? As the AP explains, scientists are working to recreate northern white rhino embryos using genetic technology. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has the frozen cell lines of 12 different northern white rhinos, which can be transformed into stem cells—and ultimately, sperm and eggs. The sperm of the last northern white male rhino, Sudan, was also saved before he died.

Scientists have been monitoring six female southern white rhinos at the San Diego Zoo to see if any emerge as likely candidates for surrogacy. However, it's not easy to artificially inseminate a rhino, and there have been few successful births in the past. There's still a fighting chance, though, and scientists ultimately hope they'll be able to build up a herd of five to 15 northern white rhinos over the next few decades.

[h/t Time Magazine]

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(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
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The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

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