Just some of the many toy Malayan tapirs I own. The models at the top are old Britiains models. The knitted tapir below is by the wonderful Sasha Kopf, aka Tapir Girl.

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.

The London Natural History Museum's display on Tapirus augustus, the beast formerly known as Megatapirus. Alas, last time I checked it was deeply nested within Tapirus and no longer in use.

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 Rodr?guez 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.

Tame tapirs frequently enjoy human company and like being scratched and petted. The Brazilian tapir here is Denzil, photographed at Bristol Zoo in 2009. Photo by Darren Naish.

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. It should be noted that virtually all of these tapir attacks involved mothers with calves.

Skull of Malayan tapir at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, revealing various of the bony correlates for the trunk. Photo by Darren Naish.

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.

Highly simplified version of tapir cladogram from Cozzuol et al. (2013), with fossil taxa removed. Malayan tapir image by Sasha Kopf, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; Baird's tapir image by Eric Kilby and Mountain tapir image by Just chaos, both licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license; Brazilian tapir image in public domain. T. kabomani image by G. Braga, from Cozzuol et al. (2013).

Fast forward a few years, and – in 2013 – Mario Cozzuol and colleagues published their description of T. kabomani, a new small tapir species that may be widespread across northern South America (Cozzuol et al. 2013). Despite only being recently recognised as a valid discovery, a specimen of this species was actually shot by Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 and has been residing ever since in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This whole story (and much else on the subject of tapir taxonomy and phylogeny) was discussed at length in this Tet Zoo ver 3 article. Cozzuol et al.’s proposal of species status for T. kabomani hasn’t gone unchallenged. Some other workers wondered whether the population concerned was really “distinct enough” for species status (Voss et al. 2014; see Cozzuol et al. 2014). Meanwhile, Marc van Roosmalen has argued that T. kabomani is actually the same animal as his T. pygmaeus (Van Roosmalen 2014).

And, as some of you will know, the “did you hear about the new tapir?” thing has become an integral part of the Tet Zoo podcats experience. Look; there’s merchandise to prove it…

Did I mention the new tapir?

Tapirs really do walk on the bottoms of rivers and lakes. It’s well known that tapirs are semi-aquatic and that individuals in many populations routinely swim and forage in water. The books also say that they can punt long the bottoms of rivers, lakes and pools when the need arises – I don’t think anybody really doubts this (and I know that people have seen it happen on enough occasions), but I still think it’s pretty neat that this behaviour has been filmed in clear, thoroughly unambiguous fashion. I blogged about this event here during September 2014, and check out the comments for more information on underwater behaviour in tapirs.

Screengrab from segment of footage showing Brazilian tapir walking underwater. Regret that I don't know who took the footage. Will add info as and when I get it.

So, there we have it. Happy World Tapir Day, and please do your bit to spread the news and do whatever you can to help these most remarkable and charismatic mammals. And just to remind you of the Tet Zoo articles I’ve been talking about above, here they are again, in list fashion…

Finally, remember that we’re here because it’s World Tapir Day. Tapirgirl’s shop is here.

Refs – -

Cozzuol , M. A., Clozato, C. L. , Holanda, E. C., Rodrigues, F. H. G., Nienow, S., de Thoisy, B., Redondo, R. A. F. & Santos, F. R. 2013. A new species of tapir from the Amazon. Journal of Mammalogy 94, 1331-1345.

- ., de Thoisy, B., Fernandes-Ferreira, H., Rodrigues, F. H. G. & Santos, F. R. 2014. How much evidence is enough evidence for a new species? Journal of Mammalogy 95, 899-905.

Haddad, V., Chagas Assun??o, 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.

Van Roosmalen, M. G. M 2014. Tapirus pygmaeus Van Roosmalen & Van Hooft in Van Roosmalen, 2013 (Mammalia, Perissodactyla, TAPIRIDAE): proposed confirmation of availability of the specific name and of the book in which this nominal species was proposed (Case 3650). Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature 71, 84-87.

Voss, R. S., Helgen, K. M. & Jansa, S. A. 2014. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence: a comment on Cozzuol et al. (2013). Journal of Mammalogy 95, 893-898.