Brazilian tapir ©Getty Images

Brazilian tapir ©Getty Images

Tapirs are large mammals with short snouts that are very flexible.

Species

There are four species, or kinds, of tapir

In the jungles and forests in South and Central America are the :

  • Baird's tapir; 
  • lowland or Brazilian tapir; 
  • mountain tapir

And in Southeast Asia : southern Thailand and southern Myanmar (Burma), through the Malayan Peninsula and on the Indonesian island of Sumatra:

  • the Malayan tapir (sometimes called the Asian tapir). 
Ungulates are hoofed mammals

Ungulates are hoofed mammals

Tapirs are in a group of animals called 'odd-toed ungulates'.  An ungulate is a mammal with hooves (or hoofs, either is correct). A hoof is really a sort of toenail. Some ungulates have a hoof that is split in two (such as pigs or antelope) while others have an odd number of toes. The tapir's closest relatives are the other odd-toed ungulates, horses and rhinoceroses. Tapirs' front legs have four toes, and back legs have three toes.

Tapirs have changed very little in tens of thousands of years, and are like living fossils.

Baird's tapir ©Getty Images

Baird's tapir ©Getty Images

Body

Tapirs have a prehensile nose, which means it can grasp things. Like an elephant's trunk, the tapir's nose is used to grab and pick leaves to feed on, and as a snorkel while swimming. 

They have strong teeth for chewing tough plants. Their hides are very tough and their bodies have a streamlined shape for easy movement in the forest.  

Malayan tapir ©GettyImages

Malayan tapir ©GettyImages

The Malayan tapir is the largest of the four species, standing about one metre high at the shoulder and weighing about 300 kilograms. Its distinctive colouring – black front section and white rear section – make it stand out during the day, but camouflage it well at night. In the shadowy, moonlit rainforest at night, the Malayan tapir is almost invisible.

The lowland, or Brazilian, tapir has a ridge of stiff hair on its head from ears to shoulder like a mane.

The mountain tapir is the largest mammal on the South American continent.

©Getty Images

©Getty Images

Behaviours

Tapirs are solitary animals, which means they live alone, except when a female has a young one. They are nocturnal (active at night) and crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk). They are able to run quickly. They have few predators, being quite large animals. They swim, and walk about on the bottom of rivers and streams.

Baird's tapir ©Getty Images

Baird's tapir ©Getty Images

Diet

Tapirs are herbivores, eating only plants: leaves, buds and fruit, as well as underwater plants gathered as they graze along the bottom of streams. They tug at the plants with their nostrils, using them like fingers.

Tapirs are important "seed dispersers" which means they swallow the seeds of plants, which are then dropped far away in their scat (poo) which helps the forest to regenerate.

Young tapir ©Getty Images

Young tapir ©Getty Images

Life Cycle

Solitary males and females find each other to mate, and then go their separate ways. A female gives birth to a single young after a long pregnancy of 13 months.  

©Getty Images

©Getty Images

A young tapir is patterned with horizontal bands and spots of black or brown and white. Young are believed to stay with their mothers for two or three years.

Conservation Status and threats

All four species of tapir are classified as Endangered or Vulnerable. Tapirs are hunted for meat and for their skin. Their habitats are being destroyed by logging and farming.