Planet Earth

Tapirs: The Ancient Forest Giants You Should Know About

What is a tapir? From where it lives to what it eats, here's everything you need to know about this endangered species and the critical conservation efforts to save them.

By Jake ParksJul 4, 2024 1:00 PM
bairds tapir swimming
Bairds tapir (Credit: Jean-Baptiste Toussaint/Shutterstock)


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Imagine an ancient mammal that looks like a blend of a pig and an anteater but is more closely related to horses and rhinos. This is the tapir, a fascinating creator that has roamed Earth for tens of millions of years.

With their strange prehensile snouts, sturdy bodies, and curious behaviors, tapirs have long intrigued scientists and nature enthusiasts alike. Here, we’ll explore what makes tapirs so unique, their habitats, their diets, and the critical conservation efforts needed to protect these endangered animals.

What Is a Tapir?

Brazilian tapir, also known as maned tapir (Credit: FotoRequest/Shutterstock)

A tapir is a large, herbivorous mammal belonging to the family Tapiridae. There are four living species of tapirs, each with a distinct habitat and appearance: Brazilian Tapir, Malayan Tapir, Baird's Tapir, and Mountain Tapir.

Tapirs have a distinctive prehensile snout — imagine a stubby elephant’s trunk — which they use to grab leaves and fruit. This flexible snout is not just for feeding; it also serves as a sensitive tool for exploring their environment and detecting scents.

Additionally, tapirs have thick, sturdy bodies and short legs. Each front foot has four toes, while each back foot has three toes. Each of these toes has its own hoof, which helps the tapir maintain balance and traction on muddy or uneven ground.

How Big Is a Tapir?

Tapirs are sizeable animals, with adults weighing between about 250 and 700 pounds, depending on the species.

Malayan tapir (Credit: SuperPapero/Shutterstock)

The largest is the Malayan tapir, which can grow up to 8 feet in length and stand up to 3.5 feet tall at the shoulder. The robust bodies and strong legs of tapirs make them well-suited for navigating the dense underbrush of their habitats.

Where Does the Tapir Live?

Tapirs are primarily found in Central and South America, except for the Malayan tapir, which inhabits the forests of Southeast Asia. These creatures thrive in dense, tropical rainforests but can also be found in grasslands and swamps. Tapirs are excellent swimmers, often residing near water sources like rivers and lakes, where they can easily cool off and escape from predators.

What Is the Tapir Related To?

Tapirs belong to the order Perissodactyla, which comprises odd-toed ungulates. This means Tapirs are more closely related to horses and rhinoceroses than to other large mammals. Despite their physical similarities to pigs and anteaters, Tapirs’ evolutionary lineage is distinct and ancient, having changed very little over the past 20 million years.

What Do Tapirs Eat?

Tapirs are herbivores, and their diet consists mainly of leaves, twigs, fruits, and aquatic vegetation.

(Credit: Makoto_Honda/Shutterstock)

They use their flexible snouts to grab and pull vegetation into their mouths. Tapirs also play a vital role in their ecosystems by helping to disperse seeds through their feces, which promotes forest regeneration.

Tapir Mating and Reproduction

Tapirs, which can live around 25-30 years, have a relatively low reproductive rate. Females give birth to a single calf after a gestation period of about 13 months. Mating often occurs in water, and the birth usually takes place near water sources.

Striped tapir calf (Credit: Nick Fox/Shutterstock)

Tapir calves are born with distinctive white stripes that provide camouflage in the dappled light of the forest floor. These markings fade over a few months as the calf matures.

Can Tapirs Swim?

Bairds tapir (Credit: Jean-Baptiste Toussaint/Shutterstock)

Despite their somewhat awkward appearance, tapirs are surprisingly agile swimmers. They often take to water to cool off, evade predators, or simply enjoy a leisurely swim. Their robust bodies and strong limbs allow them to move gracefully through water. They have even been observed using their flexible snouts as snorkels , enabling them to breathe while submerged. Additionally, swimming helps tapirs access aquatic plants, which are a part of their diet.

Read More: 5 Ancient Animals That Stood The Test Of Time

Are Tapirs Endangered?

(Sanjiv Raj/Shutterstock)

Yes, three of four species of tapirs are currently listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Habitat loss due to deforestation and agricultural expansion is the leading cause of their declining numbers. That’s why diligent conservation efforts are key to protecting these animals and their habitats. Fortunately, many organizations around the world are working to preserve tapir populations through habitat conservation, anti-poaching measures, and breeding programs.

In the wild, tapirs face predation from large cats, such as jaguars and pumas in the Americas and tigers in Asia, as well as crocodiles. Their primary defense mechanism includes running into bodies of water to escape. They also have tough hides and formidable strength, which they can use to fend off attackers if necessary.

However, human activities, including habitat destruction, poaching, and roadkill, are the most significant threats to tapir populations.

Read More: 5 Endangered Animals You Should Meet

The Importance of Tapir Conservation

Tapirs are vital to the health of their ecosystems. As seed dispersers and fertilizers, they help maintain the biological diversity of plant species in their habitats. Protecting tapirs also means conserving the forests and wetlands they inhabit, which are critical for the overall health of our planet. That’s why programs aimed at preserving tapirs can have far-reaching benefits, ensuring that these ancient creatures continue to roam the Earth for generations to come.

Read More: Scientists Are Trying to Save These Animals From Extinction

Article Sources

Our writers at use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Jake Parks is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in covering science news. He has previously written for Astronomy magazine, Discover Magazine, The Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and more.

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