By Darren Naish
I’ve just learnt (thanks, Marko Bosscher) that today (April 27th) is World Tapir Day, an annual event in which the world unites in celebration of our plucky, trunk-nosed perissodactyl pals and in which we aim to enhance awareness of tapir conservation through the raising of funds and sale of tapir-themed merchandise. Check out the World Tapir Day site for more information (and follow @worldtapirday on twitter). I have nothing special tapir-themed that’s ready to go – sorry, the event kinda crept up on me – but the good news is that tapirs have been covered here on Tet Zoo on quite a few previous occasions, and here I’m sure you’d like a reminder of what’s been said in the past…
Giant, rhino-sized fossil tapirs. Back in 2009 at Tet Zoo ver 2, I mused briefly about Tapirus augustus, a very large fossil tapir from the Pleistocene of Asia, long known as Megatapirus (a taxon since sadly sank into synonymy). One skull of T. augustus is 53 cm long, which is – to be fair – not extraordinarily big compared to the skulls of living tapir species (a Malayan tapir T. indicus skull can be about 42 cm long). However, some of the other remains apparently suggest far larger size, leading people to suggest a total length of 3.5 m and a shoulder height of 1 m, in which case there were individuals evidently somewhat larger than living species.
Tapirs have a rich fossil record involving a large number of extinct species: there are also several extinct genera, some of which are more closely related to Tapirus than others. I still need to cover extinct tapirs at length some time, and one day I will.
When tapirs attack. Like all big animals, tapirs are potentially very dangerous. They’re close relatives of rhinos (which people near-universally regard as pretty formidable, dangerous animals), they’re strong, fast and agile, and they’re equipped with powerful jaws and prominent incisor and canine teeth. A wild Brazilian or Lowland tapir T. terrestris killed a farmer following an aggressive encounter (Haddad et al. 2005) and conservationist Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Echandi, the former Costa Rican Minister of Environment and Energy, was attacked by a Baird’s tapir T. bairdii in Corcovado National Park in 2006. There was some discussion of these cases here at Tet Zoo ver 2.
Over the years, several people have been involved in unpleasant close encounters with captive tapirs, and I’ve had cause to write about those events here as well. During August 2013, a young girl and her mother both received severe injuries from a captive Brazilian tapir at Dublin Zoo, and I discussed the event here. Better known is the event that happened at Oklahoma Zoo in 1998 when a female Malayan tapir caused unbelievable, life-changing injuries to a very unlucky individual. Regular readers will know that Tet Zoo ended up hosting an incredible amount of detail concerning this incident as the woman involved related her account in the comments… read what she said here (and be sure to read the following comments). Warning: not for the faint of heart. I won’t say any more on tapir attacks in case it looks as if I’m somehow mocking those on the receiving end of these events. It should be noted that virtually all of these incidents involved mothers with calves.
Tapirs as models for facial morphology in extinct animals. Tapir facial anatomy is specialised and remarkable. A set of peculiar bony features (including reduced, elevated nasal bones, deep bony hollows on some of the facial bones and an enlarged, retracted nostril opening, and stretched premaxillary bones) have evolved in step with the development of a short, flexible proboscis.
Based on what we know about tapir facial anatomy, we can look at the skulls of various fossil animals and work out whether these had trunks too. Tapirs helped us out in determining whether sauropod dinosaurs had trunks (they almost certainly did not), and they’ve also helped with extinct mammals, like certain amynodontid rhinos (I thought I’d blogged about them at some point, but it seems that I haven’t). Tapirs have also been useful in helping to make sense of the weird, extinct South American astrapotheres – a group I should revisit at some point soon.
Did you hear about the new tapir? It’s well known that there are four living tapir species (T. terrestris, T. bairdii, T. pinchaque and T. indicus). However, in 2007, mammalogist/primatologist and author Marc van Roosmalen announced his discovery of a new alleged tapir species which he termed the anta-pretinho or T. pygmaeus. I blogged about this at Tet Zoo ver 2 (here). Marc published this name in a 2013 book but it was later argued that the key specimen he used in establishing the new name is a juvenile T. terrestris. More....