Last Updated: Feb 27, 2012
What do you get when you cross a rhinoceros’ build with a horse’s eyes and an elephant’s prehensile snout? A Baird’s tapir. This unique looking creature is distantly related to both the rhino and the horse – but bears no actual kinship to the elephant. The Baird’s tapir can grow up to 4 feet tall and as long as 6 feet, and tips the scales at 500-880 pounds.
Scientific Name: Tapirus bairdii
Status in the Wild: Endangered
Habitat: Cloud Forests, Marshes, Rainforests, Rivers, Swamps, Woodlands
Their bodies are covered in dark bristly fur, with a lighter throat and face as well as a dark spot on both cheeks. Central America’s largest land mammal, Baird’s tapir is named after Pennsylvanian zoologist Spencer Fullerton Baird, one of the first scientists to begin studying the animal in 1843. A solitary being, Baird’s is one of four types of tapirs indigenous to the Americas. Members of this fairly unsociable species usually forage for food individually or in small groups. They communicate by whistling, snorting and stamping. Like many other mammals, they use urination and defecation to mark their territories.
Baird’s tapirs are herbivores and eat twigs, fruits, leaves and other vegetation underneath the forest canopy. They have an excellent sense of smell and hearing to make up for poor vision. Baird’s tapirs are generally nocturnal so during the day they can often be found snoozing in shallow mud holes hidden by vegetation and brush. Tapirs are great swimmers and climbers. While usually non-confrontational, strong frames and thick hides allow tapirs to reign victorious in scuffles with predatory animals like the American crocodile. Their lifespan typically ranges from 22-30 years.
Tapirs dwell in a variety of ecosystems, including swampy marsh, mangrove, wet tropical forest, river woodland and cloud forest habitats. Baird’s tapir can be found in countries stretching from southern Mexico to Panama and Columbia, at altitudes reaching 11,800 feet.
In Costa Rica, the largest population of tapirs is clustered in Corcovado National Park. They can also be observed in La Selva, Cerro de la Muerte, Tenorio National Park and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
Females breed once every 20 months, producing one (and rarely two) offspring per birth. With a gestation period of 13 months, reproduction is a slow process.
A baby tapir, called a calf, weighs roughly 15 pounds at birth, and resembles “brown and beige striped watermelons on legs,” as described by the San Diego Zoo. Newborns are hidden for their first 10 days of life, until they are mobile. Offspring stay close to their mothers for one to two years – and within a range of 170- 250 acres of her for an additional two to three years. Weaning occurs after about one year, and sexual maturity is reached at 1.5-2 years of age.
Status in the Wild:
Baird’s tapir is considered endangered on the IUCN Red List, mostly due to habitat loss and hunting. Natural predators include pumas, jaguars and very large crocodiles. Less than 5,500 Baird’s tapirs are left on earth – with around 1,000 residing in Costa Rica. Local conservation efforts by the Baird's tapir project in the Osa Peninsula has laid groundwork for tapir social systems and habitat preferences. The project has radio collared twelve tapirs to date.