Bio Facts: Tapir, Baird’s
Southern Mexico to Ecuador
Any wooded or grassy habitat where there is a permanent supply of water
The Baird’s tapir is rounded in back and tapering in front. Heavy-bodied and rather short-legged, tapirs are about 6 to 8 feet long and reach about 3 feet at the shoulder. The eyes are small, the ears are short and rounded, and the snout extends into a short fleshy proboscis, or trunk, that hangs down over the upper lip. The feet have three functional toes, the first (inner) being absent, and the fifth reduced in front and absent in the hind foot. Body hair is short and bristly and is usually sparse. They have a low, narrow mane, which is not always conspicuous. The tail is short and thick. The young are dark reddish brown with yellow and white stripes and spots. This pattern is usually lost by the sixth month of age.
Up to 35 years in captivity
Reached between 2.5 and 4 years of age
Aquatic vegetation and the leaves, buds, twigs, and fruits of low growing terrestrial plants, and green shoots. In the Zoo, they are fed grain, alfalfa hay, fruits, and vegetables. Their main predator is the jaguar.
USFWS - Endangered, CITES I, IUCN - Vulnerable
Tapirs are shy inhabitants of deep forest or swamps, traveling on well-worn trails, usually near water. When disturbed, they usually flee, crashing through undergrowth and often seeking refuge in water. They are solitary animals, except for females raising their young. They usually shelter in forests and thickets by day and emerge at night to feed in bordering grassy or shrubby areas.
Baird’s tapirs are both browsers and grazers, feeding on grasses, aquatic vegetation, leaves, buds, soft twigs, and fruits of low growing shrubs. However, they prefer to browse on green shoots. Feeding in a zigzag pattern, tapirs move continuously, taking only a few leaves from any one plant. Sometimes they cause damage to young maize and other grain crops.
When tapirs bathe, there is increased activity in the digestive tract and, like a hippo; they usually defecate in the water at the river’s edge.
Tapirs mark their territories and daily routes with urine, as do rhinos. When surprised, the Baird’s tapir stamps its feet loudly.
Breeding occurs throughout the year. Females appear to be receptive every two months or so. Mating is preceded by a noisy courtship, with the participants giving high-pitched squeals. Male and female stand head to tail, sniffing their partner’s sexual parts and moving around in a circle at increasing speed. They nip at each other’s feet, ears, and flanks and prod their mate’s belly with their trunks. After a gestation period of approximately 400 days, the pregnant female seeks a secure lair in which to deliver her single calf (twins are rare). A female in her prime can produce an infant every 18 months.
Adaptations: The rounded back and tapering front of the Baird’s tapir is well suited for rapid movement through thick underbrush. This successful adaptation can be found in other unrelated species sharing the same habitat – peccaries and capybaras.
Baird’s tapirs are agile in closed or open habitat and in or under water. They are also good hill climbers, runners, sliders, waders, divers, and swimmers. The elongated snout is kept close to the ground as they walk. Sense of smell is particularly acute. Hearing is good, but not as acute as the sense of smell. Vision is less important for these nocturnal creatures. The eyes are small and set deep into the sockets for protection from thorns.
The snout is also prehensile, a sensitive “finger”, used to pull leaves and shoots within reach of the mouth.
Extending along the back of the neck is a bristly mane, protecting the most vulnerable part of the body from the deadly bites of their main predator, the jaguar.
The Baird’s tapir was the first tapir to be described by European explorers, but the last to be given a scientific name, and the last to be studied in any detail.
Next to the Malayan tapir, the Baird’s tapir is the second largest tapir in the world. It is the largest land mammal from Mexico to South America.
Tapirs are among the most primitive large mammals in the world. There were members of the modern genus Tapirus roaming the Northern Hemisphere 20 million years ago. Their descendants have changed little over the years. Their scattered relict distribution is often cited as evidence for the existence of Gondwanaland, the assumption that tapirs reached their present homes overland before the continents drifted apart.
There are four species of tapirs. Three are found in the Western Hemisphere and one in the Eastern Hemisphere. Approximately 11,000 years ago, the tapir was quite common in Florida. Since then, it has migrated much further south.
The closest living relatives to tapirs are horses and rhinoceroses.
In Belize, people often refer to the tapir as the “mountain cow.” The word tapir comes from the Tupi Indian name tapyra, which means thick. It is a reference to the animal’s tough hide.
Tapirs are hunted for food, sport and for their thick hides in many parts of their range. However, the greatest threat to their survival is habitat destruction due to logging, clearing land for agriculture or man-made development.
Jacksonville Zoo History:
There is a long history of exhibiting and breeding the Brazilian or South American tapir here. Records indicate that at least one Malayan tapir may have also been exhibited at one time. The first Baird’s tapir arrived here in October of 1997. This species has successfully bred here.