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Extinct California Tapir (Tapirus californicus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

California Tapir (Tapirus californicus)

How Do We Know This?

Like living animals, fossil remains of once-living animals are
classified and grouped according to their relationships to each other and to their ancestors.
Some fossils yield DNA which helps scientists determine these animals' similarity to living animals.

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

  • The word "tapir" is taken from the Amazonian native Tupi language.
  • The California Tapir is named for the place where its fossils are found.

Evolutionary History

  • Tapirs are considered "evolutionarily very conservative"; other than increases in size, they have changed little over time (Scott 2006)
  • Tapir fossils known from 50 million year-old Eocene rocks on Ellesmere Island, Arctic Canada (Eberle 2005)
    • Many other temperate climate plants and animals found in the same habitat
  • Tapir-like mammals were once diverse and world-wide in distribution, although only four species live today in tropical latitudes. (Ashley et al 1996)
  • A small tapir, Hesperaltes, lived in southern California some 45 million years ago (Colbert 2006)
  • Protapirus lived between 40 and 30 million years ago in the western United States (Colbert and Schoch 1998) (Prothero and Schoch 2002)
  • Between 30 and 20 million years ago three lineages of tapirs diverged and then spread to South and Central America and Asia.(Eberle 2005)
  • Tapirs very much like living tapirs today existed by 13 million years ago. (Colbert and Schoch 1998)
  • Extinct Pleistocene tapirs are very similar to living tapirs; they all belong to the same genus, Tapirus.
    • Tapirus Californicus and a larger Tapirus merriami inhabited southern California during the Pleistocene. (Scott 2006)
  • Tapirs locally extinct (extirpated) in North America by 13,000 years ago but survived in Asia and South America.


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Perissodactyla - horses, rhinos, tapirs

Family: Tapiridae - tapirs

Genus: Tapirus                              

Species: Tapirus californicus (Merriam, 1913) - California tapir (extinct)

Page Citations

Ashley (2006)
Colbert (2006)
Colbert & Schoch (1998)
Eberle (2005)
Prothero & Schoch (2002)
Scott (2006)

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