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What is a Tapir?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 October 2014
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A tapir is an odd-toed ungulate in the genus Tapirus. These unique animals are millions of years old, and their irregular distribution across the tropics of South America and parts of Asia indicates that they probably once roamed a larger section of the Earth. Some zoos keep tapirs for people who want to see these animals up close, and they can sometimes be seen in the wild, although they are generally very shy.

In appearance, a tapir really looks quite bizarre. The animals look vaguely like pigs, with compact bodies and short, muscular legs, although they are actually more closely related to horses and rhinoceroses. Their forefeet have four toes each, while their hind feet have three toes, leading to 14 in total. The most distinctive feature of a tapir is probably its muzzle, which is highly flexible, like the trunk of an elephant. However, a tapir's muzzle is much shorter than an elephant's trunk, making it look rather more like a wilted plantain than a majestic proboscis.

Tapirs range in color from brown to gray, with some species having distinct white markings. Some species also have bristly manes of black hair. All young tapirs are brown with distinctive zebra striping; the professional opinion of some biologists is that baby tapirs are among the cutest of all baby animals.

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When left unmolested, a tapir can live to between 25 and 30. Most tapirs live a solitary life, meeting only periodically on the borders of their territories. The creatures primarily come out at night, hiding in dense thickets during the day. The gestation period for a tapir is around 13 months, and the animals are sexually mature between three and four years of age.

The diet of a tapir consists of a variety of vegetable material including fruit, grasses, flowers, and leaves. The animals can use their flexible muzzles to manipulate foods and other objects that they encounter. In addition to seeking out vegetable material for food, many tapirs also favor mud wallows, rolling in the mud to coat themselves as a protection from insects and sunburn.

All four tapir species are currently an issue of concern for conservationists. The animals favor undisturbed old growth forests, and as a result, they are experiencing immense habitat pressure. Conservationists hope to preserve tapir breeding stocks in zoos and to set aside land to provide habitat for tapirs and other vulnerable tropical species.

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