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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.

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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b


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