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Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

Tapir attacks past, present, but hopefully not future

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Last Thursday (August 8th, 2013) a Brazilian or Lowland tapir Tapirus terrestris at Dublin Zoo (Ireland) seriously attacked and injured a two-year-old girl that, believe it or don’t, was taken into the tapir’s enclosure. The child’s mother was injured as she tried to rescue (or, rescued) the little girl. The girl reportedly received “deep abdomen and arm injuries” that involved arterial damage and de-gloving of hand and arm skin (yes, this is exactly what it sounds like). Reparative surgery has occurred in hospital. It may not surprise you to know that the tapir was a mother with a young calf (you may have seen this case being much discussed on facebook and twitter: I tweet @TetZoo). The story broke about two days ago and features worldwide in online and printed media today.

Jenny, Marmaduke and baby Rio: the Brazilian tapirs at Dublin Zoo. Photo from Sky News.

There are two responses that people might give to this news. One is… OMG, you mean tapirs are dangerous? In which case, the answer is: yes, they’re big (150-250 kg), strong, rhino-like* animals with dangerous teeth and a renowned unpredictability which makes them especially dangerous. The second response is… duh, of course tapirs are dangerous: they’re big, strong rhino-like animals with dangerous teeth and a renowned unpredictability which makes them especially dangerous. Did I mention that they’re dangerous?

* Tapirs and rhinos are close relatives with the perissodactyl clade Ceratomorpha. Early members of both lineages looked similar.

Keeper checks Denzil's the Brazilian tapir's teeth at Bristol Zoo, a photo I took in August 2009. Tapirs can be friendly animals that enjoy human contact. Photo by Darren Naish.

In fact, while captive tapirs will spend a lot of their time being friendly, peaceful and more than happy to engage in human contact, it’s well known to those who know tapirs (or, indeed, know about mammals in captivity in general) that they’re notorious for their unpredictable, bitey behaviour when with their young babies. Indeed, the Dublin incident is the very opposite of a world first, since quite a few tapir attacks are already on record. The most notorious happened at Oklahoma Zoo in 1998 when Melody, a female Malayan tapir Tapirus indicus (or should that be Acrocodia indicus indica*), bit a keeper’s arm clean off, and also caused facial injuries and a punctured lung. The keeper’s arm was severed at mid-biceps which might give you some idea of how dangerous and powerful a tapir’s bite can be, this being the thickest and (presumably) most difficult part of an arm to bite through. Again, this tapir had a two-month-old baby, and this presumably explained her aggressive behaviour.

* Increasingly, I think it should. The Malayan tapir falls outside of the American tapir clade in phylogenies (Ashley et al. 1996, Norman & Ashley 2000), diverged from the American ones perhaps more than 20 million years ago (Norman & Ashley 2000), and differs obviously from the American species in integumentary characters and in skull form (indicus is unlike American tapirs in having a taller anterior part of the cranium caused by uniquely large sinuses, more elevated nasals and a longer, deeper nasal cavity). The suggestion that Baird’s tapir (currently Tapirus bairdii) is not a member of Tapirus but represents an additional lineage (the name Tapirella Palmer, 1903 is available) has also been made but seems less well supported.

One of several weird (and not particularly good) tapir photos I've taken over the years. This is another Brazilian tapir, this time at Marwell Wildlife, Hampshire (UK). Photo by Darren Naish.

Also worth noting is that Haddad et al. (2005) described a fatal attack by a wild Brazilian tapir on a man, though in this case the man stabbed the tapir on discovering it in his corn field and it also later died from its wounds. Conservationist Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Echandi, the former Costa Rican Minister of Environment and Energy, was attacked by a Baird’s tapir in Corcovado National Park in 2006. Again, the attacking tapir had a calf and Echandi made special efforts to get close for a good look. The mother charged him to the ground, biting his boot and backpack (he says that this backpack probably saved his life) before trying to bite him on the back of the neck. He managed to escape before becoming unconscious; separated from his party, he became lost in the jungle for three days before rescue. (You can read an interview with Echandi here at the Tapir Specialist Group site.)

Tapir skeleton on display at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Elevated nasals and the shape of the nasal cavity indicate that this is a Malayan tapir. Photo by Darren Naish.

This brings us back to a topic discussed on Tet Zoo in the dim and distant past but never satisfactorily revisited: the issue of which animals are especially dangerous to keepers when kept in captivity. Giant anteaters Myrmecophaga tridactyla, elephants, rhinos, Killer whales Orcinus orca, Greater kudu Tragelaphus strepsiceros, Wolves Canis lupus, Lions Panthera leo, Tigers P. tigris, Giant otters Pteronura brasiliensis and Brown bears Ursus arctos, among others, have all caused occasional fatalities in zoos, but the most dangerous animals – in terms of overall numbers of attacks – are said to be deer and zebras. I’d really like to see a single, comprehensive review of injuries and deaths caused by captive animals but have yet to see one… nor have I gone to the trouble of creating one myself. Add as much info to the comments as you can and make such a task easier, thanks.

Another weird tapir photo I have: a stretching Malayan at Marwell Wildlife (tip of snout unfortunately not captured in the frame). Is it perfoming a flehmen response? Nowak says (in a caption to a sitting tapir) that such a sitting posture is "unusual for a perissodactyl". I dunno; I don't think it's that unusual for tapirs. Photo by Darren Naish.

Finally, lest people now imagine tapirs to be malevolent, toddler-mauling monsters that behave more like Jurassic Park velociraptors than the real, herbivorous animals they are, attacks like those discussed here are still rare, exceptional events that occur due to inappropriate planning and a lack of due care. Investigations at Dublin Zoo will of course lead to far stricter and more sensible behaviour in future and, indeed, behaviour at zoos worldwide will probably be revised. It may therefore be that this unfortunate incident won’t ever be repeated. I am, I have to admit, still shocked that somebody would think it ok to take a two-year-old child anywhere near a big animal like a tapir (I’m a parent, and there are times when you don’t let your kids get close to domestic animals like horses, pigs and even some cats and dogs), but I feel sorry for everyone involved. The tapir was just doing what tapirs do; unpredictability and occasional aggression on the part of mothers with young babies are part of the deal.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on perissodactyls, see...

Ref – -

Ashley, M. V., Norman, J. E. & Stross, L. 1996. Phylogenetic analysis of the perissodactylan family Tapiridae using mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase (COII) sequences. Journal of Mammalian Evolution 3, 315-326.

Haddad, V., Chagas Assunção, M., Coelho de Mello, R. & Ribeiro Duarte, M. 2005. A fatal attack caused by a Lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) in southeastern Brazil. Wilderness & Environmental Medicine 16, 97-100.

Norman, J. E. & Ashley, M. V. 2000. Phylogenetics of Perissodactyla and tests of the molecular clock. Journal of Molecular Evolution 50, 11-21.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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