8 Surprising Facts About Tapirs

These odd-looking creatures are living fossils, but their future is uncertain.

Tapir standing in grass and other vegetation
The closest living relatives of tapirs are horses, rhinos, and zebras.

Ammit Jack / Shutterstock

One of the strangest-looking 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 from other animals.

Contrary to that first impression, however, 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 to inspire some fascination for this unusual animal.

1. Tapirs Are Often Called 'Living Fossils'

A tapir trots through grass near water
Tapirs have changed very little over the past 20 million years. Tomasz Podlak / Shutterstock

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 Southeast Asia. But the earliest versions of today’s tapirs appeared in the early Eocene of North America. It's from there they spread to other continents over millennia.

Tapirs are among the most primitive mammals on Earth, having changed very little over the past 20 million years or so. The first fossil evidence of tapirs dates back to the Early Oligocene Epoch.

2. Their Closest Relatives Are Rhinos and Horses

Tapirs are often compared with pigs, anteaters, or elephants, and the similarities are hard to miss. In reality, however, they are not closely related to either. Tapirs are perissodactyls, a group of herbivorous mammals also known as odd-toed ungulates. Their closest living relatives, therefore, are fellow perissodactyls such as horses, rhinoceroses, and zebras.

3. Their Calves Are Camouflaged

Baby tapir with distinctive camouflage markings
Tapir babies have markings to help camouflage them. Ben Queenborough / Shutterstock

Adorable, right? Considering the more, um, interesting appearance of adults, you might be surprised to know 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.

4. They Have a Prehensile Nose

A tapir holds up its prehensile nose with its mouth open
That exceptional proboscis has many uses. jeep2499 / Shutterstock

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.

5. They Are Exceptional Swimmers

Tapir swimming with head above water
Tapirs are good swimmers. Dagmara Ksandrova / Shutterstock

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 if needed. When alarmed, a tapir can even hide underwater and use its snout like a snorkel.

6. They Can Eat 75 Pounds of Food Per Day

Tapirs are herbivores. Their diet typically features a lot of fruit, berries, and foliage, including aquatic plants as well as those on land. The animals will spend a large portion of their day foraging along familiar routes. An adult tapir can eat as much as 75 pounds (34 kilograms) of food in a single day.

7. They Are Critical Curators of Plants

Tapir foraging in grass
There are four species of tapir. jeep2499 / Shutterstock

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 Malayan tapir, the black-and-white species pictured above. It's found in Malaysia and Sumatra and can grow to be as heavy as 800 pounds (363 kg).

8. They Are Endangered

Kid taking a photo of a tapir at a zoo
Tapirs are curious creatures. Vladimir Wrangel / Shutterstock

There are four species of tapir. They are:

  • Malayan tapir (Tapirus 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 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the lowland tapir 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.

Save the Tapir

  • Support conservation groups working to preserve habitats for tapirs and protect the animals from poaching. That could mean international organizations like Re:wild or the IUCN's Tapir Specialist Group, or more local efforts like Brazil's Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative.
  • Help raise awareness about the effects of deforestation on tapirs, and about the importance of understanding the origins of the food and products we buy, so we can avoid any linked to the destruction of rainforests where tapirs live.