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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.



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.



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.


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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.


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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.



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. 


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


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.


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. 


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. 


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. 


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.


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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.


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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.



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.

Elusive Butterfly Sighted in Scotland for the First Time in 133 Years

Conditions weren’t looking too promising for the white-letter hairstreak, an elusive butterfly that’s native to the UK. Threatened by habitat loss, the butterfly's numbers have dwindled by 96 percent since the 1970s, and the insect hasn’t even been spotted in Scotland since 1884. So you can imagine the surprise lepidopterists felt when a white-letter hairstreak was seen feeding in a field in Berwickshire, Scotland earlier in August, according to The Guardian.

A man named Iain Cowe noticed the butterfly and managed to capture it on camera. “It is not every day that something as special as this is found when out and about on a regular butterfly foray,” Cowe said in a statement provided by the UK's Butterfly Conservation. “It was a very ragged and worn individual found feeding on ragwort in the grassy edge of an arable field.”

The white-letter hairstreak is a small brown butterfly with a white “W”-shaped streak on the underside of its wings and a small orange spot on its hindwings. It’s not easily sighted, as it tends to spend most of its life feeding and breeding in treetops.

The butterfly’s preferred habitat is the elm tree, but an outbreak of Dutch elm disease—first noted the 1970s—forced the white-letter hairstreak to find new homes and food sources as millions of Britain's elm trees died. The threatened species has slowly spread north, and experts are now hopeful that Scotland could be a good home for the insect. (Dutch elm disease does exist in Scotland, but the nation also has a good amount of disease-resistant Wych elms.)

If a breeding colony is confirmed, the white-letter hairstreak will bump Scotland’s number of butterfly species that live and breed in the country up to 34. “We don’t have many butterfly species in Scotland so one more is very nice to have,” Paul Kirkland, director of Butterfly Conservation Scotland, said in a statement.

Prior to 1884, the only confirmed sighting of a white-letter hairstreak in Scotland was in 1859. However, the insect’s newfound presence in Scotland comes at a cost: The UK’s butterflies are moving north due to climate change, and the white-letter hairstreak’s arrival is “almost certainly due to the warming climate,” Kirkland said.

[h/t The Guardian]

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Plagued with Rodents, Members of the UK Parliament Demand a Cat
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Members of the United Kingdom’s Parliament want a cat, but not just for office cuddles: As The Telegraph reports, the Palace of Westminster—the meeting place of Parliament’s two houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords—is overrun with vermin, and officials have had enough. They think an in-house feline would keep the rodents at bay and defray skyrocketing pest control costs.

Taxpayers in the UK recently had to bear the brunt of a $167,000 pest control bill after palace maintenance projects and office renovations disturbed mice and moths from their slumber. The bill—which was nearly one-third higher than the previous year’s—covered the cost of a full-time pest control technician and 1700 bait stations. That said, some Members of Parliament (MPs) think their problem could be solved the old-fashioned way: by deploying a talented mouser.

MP Penny Mordaunt tried taking matters into her own hands by bringing four cats—including her own pet kitty, Titania—to work. (“A great believer in credible deterrence, I’m applying the principle to the lower ministerial corridor mouse problem,” she tweeted.) This solution didn’t last long, however, as health and safety officials banned the cats from Parliament.

While cats aren’t allowed in Parliament, other government offices reportedly have in-house felines. And now, MPs—who are sick of mice getting into their food, running across desks, and scurrying around in the tearoom—are petitioning for the same luxury.

"This is so UNFAIR,” MP Stella Creasy said recently, according to The Telegraph. “When does Parliament get its own cats? We’ve got loads of mice (and some rats!) after all!" Plus, Creasy points out, a cat in Parliament is “YouTube gold in waiting!"

Animal charity Battersea Dogs & Cats Home wants to help, and says it’s been trying to convince Parliament to adopt a cat since 2014. "Battersea has over 130 years [experience] in re-homing rescue cats, and was the first choice for Downing Street, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Cabinet Office when they sought our mousers to help with their own rogue rodents,” charity head Lindsey Quinlan said in a statement quoted by The Telegraph. “We'd be more than happy to help the Houses of Parliament recruit their own chief mousers to eliminate their pest problem and restore order in the historic corridors of power."

As of now, only assistance and security dogs are allowed on palace premises—but considering that MPs spotted 217 mice alone in the first six months of 2017 alone, top brass may have to reconsider their rules and give elected officials purr-mission to get their own feline office companions.

[h/t The Telegraph]


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