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Tapirs (extant/living species; Tapirus spp.) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

  • Rest/hide in forests during day
  • Crepuscular feeders (just before daybreak and after dusk)
    • Constantly foraging when awake
  • Sleep between midnight and dawn; may sleep in several inches of water
  • Good hill climbers and runners
  • Love water and wallowing in mud
    • Create paths to rivers and lakes
    • Water is a cooling mechanism
    • Rids of skin parasites
    • Instinctively head for water to avoid predators
      • Can completely submerge 60-90 seconds (Barongi 1993)
  • Urinate frequently in evening (backward spray several meters long)

Movements and dispersal

Home range

  • Densities variable: 1/km2 to < 0.3/km2 (Eisenberg, 1997)
  • Home ranges can overlap

Social Behavior

Social groups

  • Generally solitary; except during reproductive season
  • Congregate at salt licks at mating time
  • Mothers stay with young 1-2 years
  • Family of Baird’s tapirs observed sleeping and moving together



  • Shrill whistling sound – often followed by answering whistle from another tapir
  • Bird-like chirping sounds or hiccup (may indicate anxiety – separation from young)


  • Keen sense of smell
    • Well-developed vomeronasal organ for detecting pheromones (scent marks)
  • Scent mark with urine


  • Keen sense of hearing

Agonistic Behavior and Defense

Defensive behavior

  • Extremely shy - rely on camouflage for protection
  • Protective response varies with level of fear – Usually in response to auditory threat
    • Stop feeding and freeze
    • Bolt, if necessary
    • Rarely confront a threat
    • Enter water if chased by dogs or predator


  • Bare teeth and move ears forward, when individuals meet
    • Biting hind legs, circling, and chasing if none retreat
  • Serious wounds possible; inflicted by well-developed incisors and canines
  • Mother may chase away weaned offspring when caring for a newborn.

Interspecies Interactions

  • Hunted by native people for meat, hides, trophies, folk medicine
  • Important role as tropical seed dispersers (Olmos)
    • Most seeds capible of germination after passing through digestive tract
      • Unlike ruminant herbivores
    • Lowland tapirs effective dispersers of palm
    • Malayan tapir dung piles almost always contain live seeds
    • Baird's tapir dispersed seeds from 22 of 33 species eaten
    • Mountain tapirs disperse 86 of 264 plants long distances


  • Walk with snout close to ground (detection of food, predators, other tapirs)
  • Move in zig-zag constantly foraging
  • Good swimmers and divers. (Observed walking on bottom of pools in zoos)

Warmth of the Sun

Baird's tapir sleeping

Tapirs usually rest and hide in the forest during the day.

However, this tapir living at the San Diego Zoo is taking advantage of its safe home by having a nice sunbathe.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Barongi (1993)
Eisenberg (1997)
Olmos (1997)
Terwilliger (1978)
Todd and Matola (2001)

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