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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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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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