One of the strangest mammals living today is the tapir, a visual hodgepodge of an elephant and a wild hog. In fact, the Thai word for tapir is "P'som-sett," which means "mixture is finished" because, like the wildebeest in Africa, the tapir looks like a blend of whatever parts were left over after creating other animals.
Contrary to that first impression, the tapir is a highly adapted creature that has been around longer than many other mammals on the planet today — yet its future is uncertain.
Here are several facts sure to inspire some fascination for this unusual animal.
Tapirs are often called 'living fossils'
If this tapir looks like a prehistoric beast, that's because it sort of is. The four species that remain today are found in South America, Central America and southeastern Asia. But the earliest versions of today’s tapirs appeared in the early Eocene of North America. It's from there that they spread to other continents over millennia.
According to Live Science, "Tapirs are the most primitive large mammals in the world. They’ve been around for 20 million years and have changed very little. The first fossil record of tapirs is found from the Early Oligocene period (65.5 million to 23 million years ago)."
Tapir calves are camouflaged
Adorable, right? Considering the more, um, interesting appearance of adults, you might be surprised to know that this is what tapirs look like when they're babies. Tapir calves take cute to a new level, looking like a perfect mix of a fawn and a piglet.
Like many other animal species, their coloring at birth is part of a survival strategy. In the forests where most tapirs live and forage, the striped and dotted coat matches the dappled sunlight of the understory, helping the babies blend into their surroundings.
Tapirs have a prehensile nose
That long snout isn't just for looks. It's actually prehensile, meaning it's made to wrap around and grab things. Tapirs use their noses to grab fruit, leaves and other food. For food that may seem out of reach, the creature can stretch its nose way up, wrap around the morsel and pull it down to eat.
The extra-long nose is also multifunctional. The tapir can use its nose as a snorkel, making it easier to swim.
And that leads us to our next surprising fact ...
Tapirs are exceptional swimmers
Tapirs take to the water to find additional forage. They not only swim well; they can also walk underwater, moving at a good clip along a lake bottom.
Check out the speed at which this tapir can move underwater to get away from a perceived threat:
Tapirs are critical curators of plants
Often called the "gardeners of the forest," tapirs play an important role in dispersing seeds. They require a large range for foraging, and when they eat fruits and berries in one area and travel to the next, they take those seeds with them in their digestive tract and disperse them as they defecate. This helps boost the genetic diversity of plants in the forest. And because tapirs are large animals — South America's largest land mammal — they move a lot of seeds.
Speaking of size, the world's largest tapir is the Malay tapir, the black-and-white species pictured here. It's found in Malaysia and Sumatra and can grow to be as large as 800 pounds.
Tapirs are endangered
There are four species of tapir. They are:
- Malayan tapir (T. indicus)
- Mountain tapir (T. pinchaque)
- Baird's tapir (T. bairdii)
- Lowland tapir (T. terrestris)
All species are in need of conservation. The Malayan, mountain and Baird's tapirs are listed as Endangered on IUCN's Red List, and the lowland is listed as Vulnerable. Hunting of tapirs for their meat is one of the biggest threats, with habitat fragmentation and habitat encroachment by humans as two other threats, according to Tapir Specialist Group.
If you're interested in learning more about tapirs and supporting conservation, check out Tapir Specialist Group as well as Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative and Malayan Tapir Conservation Project.