For some considerable time now, there have been rumours of an incredible zoological discovery: a new species of living perissodactyl – a tapir – due to be announced from the Amazon. At long last, the paper is out. Published in Journal of Mammalogy, and authored by Mario Cozzuol and a team of colleagues, it describes the new Tapirus species T. kabomani, first realised to be novel following the recognition of specimens obtained by Brazilian indigenous hunters in 2009, and since recognised in museum collections (Cozzuol et al. 2013). This is the first officially recognised new tapir to be described since 1865 (when Baird’s tapir T. bairdii was named).

T. kabomani is known from several specimens obtained by local hunters. The type specimen is a young adult male (represented by both skin and skeleton) and other recently hunted specimens are known as well. Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that a partial skull and skin collected by Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 (and today residing in the collections of the American Museum of Natural History in New York) also belongs to this species (Cozzuol et al. 2013). As so often turns out to be the case, this ‘new’ species has in fact been sitting on a museum shelf for about 100 years. Ah, hindsight. The species name honours the local Paumarí name for tapir, ‘Arabo kabomani’.

Tapirus kabomani is morphologically distinct from other tapirs

How is T. kabomani distinguished as a new species? For a start, it’s small: 1.3 m long, 90 cm tall at shoulder, and estimated to weigh about 110 kg. This makes it the smallest living tapir. In life, it is especially dark, with a lower mane and broader forehead than the well known and familiar Brazilian or Lowland tapir T. terrestris.

Several cranial characters clearly allow its differentiation from T. terrestris and other tapirs. Compared to T. terrestris, T. kabomani has broader, more inflated frontal bones, a lower sagittal crest and shallower, smaller concavities on the top of its snout. Cozzuol et al. (2013) include a figure that shows some of the main cranial differences between T. kabomani and T. terrestris: the most obvious concern the form of the sagittal crest and position of the fronto-parietal suture, though you can also see that T. kabomani has a rather more gracile, far straighter rostrum than T. terrestris (does this mean anything for feeding behaviour and ecology?). Now that we know what to look for, it should be easy to spot additional T. kabomani skulls in collections.

The authors included cranial measurements from living (and several fossil) tapirs in a morphometric analysis. T. kabomani is well separated from the others as a distinct cluster – it does not overlap with their large T. terrestris cluster, nor is it at all close to it (Cozzuol et al. 2013).

What makes T. kabomani especially interesting is the fact that it has unusually short limbs compared to other living tapirs – in fact, this feature even makes T. kabomani different from a number of fossil tapirs as well as from all the living ones (Cozzuol et al. 2013). So, is it a recently evolved, short-legged form (perhaps a dwarf, specialised forest tapir), or a primitive form that retains primitive proportions?

Where within the tapir radiation?

Cozzuol et al. (2013) produced a new morphology-based phylogeny of tapirs. As the authors note, the results are surprising in placing the Baird’s tapir T. bairdii and Malayan tapir T. indicus together (in a clade that contains the North and Central American fossil species T. polkensis, T. haysii and T. veroensis), and as the sister-group to a clade that contains endemic South American species. Within the latter clade, T. kabomani is recovered as outside a clade that contains the Mountain tapir T. pinchaque, T. terrestris and the extinct Pleistocene and Holocene Brazilian species T. cristatellus. T. kabomani groups specifically with the Pleistocene Brazilian tapir T. rondoniensis.

Some of these results might be set to change, especially the position of the Malayan tapir: there are indications from elsewhere that this species is highly distinct relative to Tapirus tapirs, normally being recovered as their sister-taxon (Ashley et al. 1996, Norman & Ashley 2000). In fact, it is so distinct relative to the others that use of the ‘old’ generic name Acrocodia is favoured by some. However, another recent morphological analysis also found the Malayan tapir to be nested well within the clade that includes extant Central and South American tapirs, and closer to Baird’s tapir than to any other living tapir (Holanda & Ferrero 2012).

Molecular data seemingly shows that T. kabomani is unique and diagnostic too, and in fact it lacks molecular characters that group T. pinchaque and T. terrestris together. So, overall, we have a population of small, dark tapirs that can be distinguished osteologically, look obviously different in integumentary characters and body size from other living tapirs, and which exhibit unique molecular characters. All in all, the case here looks strong. I happen to know that the authors tried for some time to get this most significant publication into a higher-hitting technical publication, but – as so often happens – they failed due to reviewer scepticism. Nevertheless, let’s hope that this discovery gets the publicity and attention that it deserves.

On that note, very little is known of this tapir in the wild. Aided by local indigenous hunters, the authors were able to identify live specimens photographed by remote cameras. Observations indicate that T. kabomani is not rare in some parts of the southwestern Brazilian Amazon, but this area – recognised as a biodiversity hotspot – is under threat due to rapid deforestation, an increasing human population and planned hydroelectric schemes (Cozzuol et al. 2013). The species may actually be widespread, since it also seems to be present in the far eastern Amazon and in Colombia too (Cozzuol et al. 2013).

More hot new tapir news to come?

Some of you might be wondering what the deal is with another recently named claimed tapir species: Marcus van Roosmalen’s Tapirus pygmaeus, also from the Brazilian Amazon. While the T. kabomani type specimen can be shown to be osteologically mature due to its erupted first molar teeth, the same cannot be said of T. pygmaeus: it seems that the type specimen (named, obviously, for its supposedly novel small size) is a juvenile, and a juvenile of T. terrestris. Cozzuol et al. (2013) don’t even mention T. pygmaeus, I assume because it was never officially published.

However, it may be that other surprises from the world of tapirs are set to be announced at some point. T. terrestris was not monophyletic in Cozzuol et al.’s (2013) molecular analysis, instead forming two clusters separated by T. pinchaque: an intriguing result which might mean that one of those clusters deserves separate recognition.

New, large terrestrial mammals are not reported often, but they are reported on occasion. Since the 1990s, the Saola or Vu Quang ox Pseudoryx nghetinhensis (Van Dung et al. 1993), Dingiso Dendrolagus mbaiso (Flannery et al. 1995), Giant or Large-antlered muntjac Muntiacus vuquangensis (Do Tuoc et al. 1994), Small red brocket Mazama bororo (Duarte & Jorge 1996), Kipunji Rungwecebus kipunji (Beckman 2005, Jones et al. 2005), Giant peccary Pecari maximus (van Roosmalen et al. 2007, though see Gongora et al. 2007) and Burmese snub-nosed monkey Rhinopithecus strykeri (Geissmann et al. 2010) have all been named – an encouraging indication that there might be a small number of cryptic large mammals still out there. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Anyway: a new living tapir – wow!!

For previous Tet Zoo articles on tapirs and other perissodactyls, see…

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