Visitors to Corcovado
National Park are very often treated to an encounter with Bairdís
tapir, the largest mammal native to the Neotropics. Upon meeting
one of these lumbering beasts one is immediately impressed by
how docile and benign it is Ė a real gentle giant of our forests!
Bairdís tapir, Tapirus
bairdii, is the largest of three species found in the rainforests
of Neotropics Ė an adult male can weigh up to 300 kilograms (660
lbs). It ranges from southern Mexico through Central America and
into western Columbia and Ecuador. Tapirus terrestris, the Brazilian
tapir, inhabits the lowland rainforest from Venezuela to northern
Argentina, and T. pinchaque, the mountain tapir, is confined to
the dwarf forests and paramo of the Columbian and Ecuadorian Andes.
A fourth species, T. indicus, the Asiatic tapir, ranges through
Burma, Thailand, the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. The Asiatic
tapir is the largest of the four species and its white and black
coloration contrasts to the somber brownish-gray coloration of
the Neotropical species. Young tapirs of all species are dark
reddish brown with white stripes and spots, a coloration they
retain for their first 5 to 8 months.
Tapirs are odd-looking
beasts, to say the least: robustly built and rather rhinoceros-like,
but without the horns, and with a flexible, trunk-like nose and
upper lip. Their limbs are stout with three load-bearing toes
on each foot, placing tapirs within the odd-toed ungulates or
Perissodactyla. This order of large, herbivorous mammals also
includes the horses and rhinoceroses.
reigned supreme as the dominant herbivores of the northern hemisphere
in the middle of the Tertiary era, reaching their greatest diversity
from 45 to 20 million years ago. Its members included the largest
land mammals ever to have lived: Megatherium, for example, a huge
rhinoceros-like animal, weighed in at an impressive 20 tons -
four times the weight of a large, bull elephant!
supremacy of the Perissodactyls, however, was to wane towards
the later half of the Tertiary. The even-toed ungulates, or Artiodactyls
began to gain the upper hand as the northern hemispheres dominant
herbivores. Their large ruminating, four-chambered stomachs made
the Artiodactyls more efficient than the Perissodactyls at processing
the rather coarse, indigestible vegetable mater upon which they
depended. - It has always seemed to me to be a rather odd quirk
of evolution that the ungainly, and dull-witted cow should have
gained supremacy over the graceful, and relatively intelligent
Of the fifteen families,
and numerous species, that represented the Perissodactyls in their
hay-day, only three families and seventeen species survive today.
All but a handful of these species are threatened with extinction
Ė it is only through the good fortune of their mutualistic association
with man that Equus caballus, the horse, and E. asinus, the ass,
have gained a secure future!
Of the three remaining
families of Perissodactyls, it is the rhinoceroses (Rhinocerotidae),
and the tapirs (Tapiridae), that are more closely related. Each
share more features in common than either does to the horses (Equidae).
Among these shared features are the possession of three load-bearing
toes on their fore and hind feet Ė though, the tapirs do possess
a fourth toe on their fore feet, which bears load only in swampy
terrain. Horses, asses and zebras, as you know, have one load-bearing
Tapirs are browsers
of forest habitats, feeding mainly on leaves, though fruit and
grasses comprise a significant portion of their diet. Tapirs favor
riparian habitats along river courses, swamps and the fringes
of bodies of water. They often feed partly submerged in water
on floating herbaceous vegetation. Tapirs are very accomplished
swimmers, and it is not uncommon in Corcovado National Park to
see Bairdís tapir swim considerable distances under water.
Bairdís tapir, like
its relatives, are solitary animals, and strongly territorial.
Males hold large territories that include the territories of perhaps
several females. Characteristically for the Perissodactyls, Bairdís
tapir has a long gestation period of 13 months, after which a
single young is born (very rarely two) and remains in its mothers
care for about a year.
Tapirs have an acute
sense of smell and hearing, but relatively poor eyesight. They
tent to be more active at night, but in Corcovado, Bairdís tapir
may be encountered during the day, especially in the afternoons
in wallows or in rivers. Tapirs communicate over distances with
long whistles; grunts, hiccups and whimpers at close range. On
their browsing forays, tapirs tend to use regular, well-worn trails
through the forest. These trails often form deep cuts along riverbanks
at their regular crossing points.
is list by CITES in Appendix 1: Ďrare and localí. The major threat
to the species comes from habitat loss and hunting. They are not
a regular item on the jaguarsí menu - which may in part account
for their rather nonchalant manner when encountered in Corcovado.
Females will defend their young quite aggressively, but in most
other circumstances these animals have an aura of benign indifference
when encountered. In this respect they couldnít be more different
to the feisty, neurotic and aggressive peccary.
Mike Boston is
a biologist, wilderness expedition guide, and the president of Osa
Aventura. You can contact him at at email@example.com