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Tapirs (extant/living species; Tapirus spp.) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

Body measurements

Attribute Lowland Tapir Central Am. Tapir Mountain Tapir Malayan Tapir
Head-body length 191-242 cm (75-95 in) 200-230 cm (79-91 in) 180-200 cm (71-79 in) 250-300 cm (98-118 in)
Shoulder height males: 83-118 cm (33-46 in)
females: 83-113 cm (33-44 in)
approx. 120 cm (47 in) 80-90 cm (31-35 in) 100-130 cm (39-51 in)
Tail length less than 10 cm (4 in)
Weight 180-300 kg (397-661 lb) 250-350 kg (551-772 lb) 150-200 kg (331-441 lb) 280-400 kg (617-882)

 

Data source: Medici (2011).

General Appearance

Body, legs, and feet

  • Massive, barrel-shaped body – rounded in back, tapering in front
    • Can crash through dense vegetation
  • Thick, leathery, yet supple skin with little hair (mountain tapir is the exception with thick hair and thinner skin)
  • Short legs, neck and tail
  • Four toes on each front foot. (outer toe is vestigial) Three toes on each back foot. Each toe has a long hoof.

Head

  • Distinctive, flexible proboscis-like nose/snout
    • Formed from tissues of upper lip and nose
    • Muscle arrangement enables complex movement, but only minimal elongation
    • Transverse nostrils at tip of snout
    • Tip with tough tubercles and numerous long, coarse hairs
    • Extremely large nasal cavity
    • Highly developed vomeronasal organ in the nasal cavity is used to detect pheromones (chemical messages) from other tapirs
    • Length varies among the 5 species - Longest in Malayan tapir. Shortest in Brazilian tapir
  • Teeth
    • Lower canines well-developed
    • Upper canines small
    • Upper incisors similar to canines
  • Eyes small and myopic (more developed than rhinoceros)
  • Ears short and round; tips with white border (Cozzuol et al. 2013)

Misc.

  • Simple stomach – short cecum and large lumen
  • Baby tapirs reddish-brown with white striped/spotted coats (good camouflage)

Sexual Dimorphism

  • Males slightly smaller than females

Identification

  • Malayan Tapir
    • Largest species
    • Short coat
    • Black head and legs with large white saddle
    • No mane
  • Baird’s Tapir
    • Brown
    • Cream-colored markings on face and throat
    • Dark spot on each cheek, behind and below the eye
    • Brush-like mane
  • Lowland Tapir
    • Bristly brown or dark gray coat
    • Short narrow mane on head and anterior back
    • Unique sagittal neck crest.
  • Mountain Tapir
    • Dark reddish-brown
    • Thick wooly coat with under-fur
    • Lips outlined in white.
  • T. kabomani
    • Smallest living tapir
      • Limbs shortest of all living species
      • Darker hair (gray to brownish)
      • Lower mane than the lowland tapir (Cozzuol et al. 2013)

Distinctive Nose

Baird's tapir lifting nose

A tapir's nose is incredibly flexible, sensitive, and adept at detecting subtle scents.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Blending In For Protection

Young Malayan tapir standing on land

Having speckled coloration helps this young Malayan tapir camoflague with its forest habitat.

These spots resemble how sunlight looks on the rainforest floor (after passing through the canopy).

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Cozzuol et al. (2013)
Eisenberg et al. (1990)
Fradrich and Thenius (1972)
Witmer (1999)

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