They are so-called living fossils: the ancestors of the tapirs roamed through the primeval forests around 50 million years ago. They didn’t look much different than tapirs do today.


What do tapirs look like?

From afar, tapirs look a bit like big wild boars. However, they are much more closely related to rhinos and horses. All three groups of animals belong to the odd-toed ungulates.

Tapirs are strong four-legged friends. Depending on the species, they can be up to two meters long, up to 1.20 meters high, and weigh 150 to 375 kilograms. The smallest tapir is the mountain tapir, the largest the Malayan tapir, which lives in Asia. All tapirs have a strong body and relatively short legs.

Typical characteristics of the animals are the upper lip and nose, which have grown together to form a small trunk. They are amazingly good at grasping and plucking leaves and twigs with their trunks. The trunk is also covered with fine tactile bristles. The head of the animals is long and slender in relation to the body. Their skin is thick and tough, so they are well protected from the prickly brush in the dense undergrowth. In the case of tapirs, the females are usually slightly larger than their male counterparts.

Where do tapirs live?

Millions of years ago, tapirs were distributed across America and Eurasia. This is proven by fossils that researchers have found. Today, tapirs are only found in Central and South America and Southeast Asia. Tapirs are forest dwellers. They live in the dense jungles of Central and South America and in the jungles of southern Thailand, on the Malay Peninsula, and on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Tapirs always live near bodies of water.

What types of tapirs are there?

Many tapir species once lived in the world. Today there are only five of them: The Central American tapir is the largest tapir in the Americas and is found from the extreme south of Mexico to the coastal regions of Colombia and Ecuador. It can weigh up to 250 kilograms. Its short coat is grey, with only the lower half of the face and chest colored white.

The mountain tapir lives in the Andes of Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. Because it inhabits the high, cool mountain regions, it is the only tapir species that has a thick, woolly coat that protects it from the cold and the sun’s rays. Its body is dark gray to dark brown, only the lips and the tips of the ears are white. The lowland tapir inhabits the Amazon basin of Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. He is gray and has a crest of hair that runs from his ears to his shoulders.

The tapir’s only Asian relative is the Malayan tapir. It is the largest tapir, weighs up to 375 kilograms, and has a special pattern: While the head, front body, and hind legs are black, the middle of the body is white to silver-grey. Hence the name Schabrackentapir: Schabracke comes from the Turkish language and means saddle cloth. With his drawing, he is perfectly camouflaged in the jungle. The Kabomani tapir was first described in 2013! It lives in South America and is the smallest tapir species still found today. Its name derives from the language of the Paumari Indians.

How old do tapirs get?

Tapirs can live up to 30 years in the wild and up to 35 years in captivity.


How do tapirs live?

Tapirs are only active in the early morning and after sunset. They sleep a few hours at night and then rest extensively during the day. They are unsociable animals that mostly roam the woods alone. Males and females come together during the mating season. Outside of this period, small groups of two to four animals sometimes form. How close the relationship between the animals is not known. They usually go their separate ways after a short time.

A tapir is a shy fellow. If danger approaches, he remains motionless in the thicket of the jungle. There he is also well camouflaged. But when he panics, he runs blindly through the forest. He runs over everything that stands in his way. Tapirs always use the same paths in the jungle, so that real trails are formed over time. This is how tapirs move very quickly in the dense undergrowth. All tapirs are good swimmers and love to swim in the rivers or take a good mud bath.

Friends and foes of tapirs

Pumas, jaguars, and bears are enemies of tapirs. Crocodiles and anacondas mainly hunt young tapirs. However, the animals’ greatest enemy is man: in the past, tapirs were mainly hunted for their meat and skin. In addition, their habitat is becoming smaller and smaller due to the deforestation of the rainforests. Therefore, all four tapir species are threatened today.

How do tapirs breed?

Tapirs have a long gestation period: a female gives birth to a single young only 390 to 400 days after mating. The tapir babies of the four species all look the same: their fur is dark brown with light brown to white vertical stripes. These streaks are sometimes resolved into spots or look like a dashed line. When the young are about four to six months old, they lose their stripes and acquire the fur color of the adult animals. They become sexually mature at the age of two to three years.

How do tapirs communicate?

Tapirs communicate with each other by whistling. They differ in volume, pitch, and length. The Central American tapir can also click its tongue loudly and make grunting sounds.


What do tapirs eat?

Tapirs are vegetarians. They pluck leaves and twigs from trees with their trunks. They also eat fruit, grass, marsh, and aquatic plants. They can also pick up fruit directly from the ground with their mouths.

Keeping Tapirs

Flatland tapirs in particular are often kept in zoos. They are easy-going fosterlings because they are happy with any kind of plant-based food, i.e. fruit, vegetables, leaves, or grass. When taken into captivity young, they adapt well to humans and even become quite tame. But they will not become real pets.

Mary Allen

Written by Mary Allen

Hello, I'm Mary! I've cared for many pet species including dogs, cats, guinea pigs, fish, and bearded dragons. I also have ten pets of my own currently. I've written many topics in this space including how-tos, informational articles, care guides, breed guides, and more.

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