Tapirs are strange animals. I first heard of them when I was younger and playing Zoo Tycoon. The funny thing is, I had the ultimate edition of Zoo Tycoon which included extinct and some imaginary creatures. So for a long time I wasn’t sure whether tapirs actually existed or not.
It turns out tapirs are actual animals, and that there’s five species of them. Four species live in Central and South America, while the fifth is found in Southeast Asia. Tapirs live in forested areas, both in lowlands and mountains. Though they are land animals, all tapirs love water, and will happily splash around in flooded forests or mountain streams.
Tapirs look a bit like a hippopotamus crossed with an elephant, with maybe some horse thrown in for good measure. They are generally around 2 m long and 1 m high at the shoulder, weighing between 150 and 300 kg. They have short, bristly fur on their bodies, which is dark brown in all species except for the Malayan tapir, which has a large white patch on its midsection. The most prominent feature of tapirs are their funny-looking noses, which are formed from the snout and upper lips.
The noses of tapirs are used to grab food from trees and other foliage. The noses are quite moveable, able to reach in any direction. Tapirs are herbivores, eating the leaves, buds and fruits of any low-hanging plants. They also often consume aquatic plants, walking on the bottom of rivers and streams to find nice tasty plant morsels. To deal with the large amount of vegetation in their diet, tapirs are hindgut fermentors, meaning bacteria in the cecum of the digestive tract help digest the tough plant fibres in the animals’ diets.
Aside from the breeding season, tapirs are solitary animals. They are usually nocturnal, and spend most of their hours wandering around and looking for food. As I mentioned before, they are water lovers, and will often lounge in water to cool off. As well, if tapirs feel threatened, they usually just head to the nearest water hole and submerge themselves until the predator leaves. When cornered, though, they can be pretty dangerous because they have very strong jaws.
Unfortunately for tapirs, hunting and habitat loss has reduced numbers worldwide. Currently all species of tapir are considered endangered or vulnerable. Luckily I think these guys are so strange looking that conservation efforts will continue to try and keep tapirs around for a long time.
Cover image by Fábio Mitsuka Paschoal, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped to fit