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Tapirs (extant/living species; Tapirus spp.) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

Origin of common name

  • Name “tapir” is derived from the Tupi Indian word “tapyra” (language spoken until 17th century in Brazil)

Early taxonomy

  • Linnaeus was only familiar with the Brazilian Tapir.
    • He considered it a terrestrial hippo, naming it “Hippopotamus terrestris
  • Brisson later proposed the genus name Tapirus

One approach to naming tapir species

  • Five species within genus Tapirus
  • T. indicus: Malayan tapir, Asian Tapir, Indian Tapir; Spanish: Tapir À Dos Blanc Spanish – Tapir De La India
  • T. bairdii: Baird’s tapir, Central American Tapir; Spanish: Anteburro, Danta, Dante, Danto, Macho De Monte, Tapir Centroamericano
  • T. pinchaque: Mountain Tapir, Andean Tapir, Woolly Tapir; Spanish: Danta Cordillerana, Danta De Montaña, Danta De Páramo, Danta Lanuda, Danta Negra, Gran Bestia, Pinchaque, Tapir Andino
  • T. terrestris: Lowland Tapir, Brazilian Tapir, South American Tapir Anta, Anta Brasileña, Danta, Danta Amazónica, Gran Bestia, Tapir Brasileño
  • T. kabomani: proposed as a separate species by Cozzuol et al. (2013) but found not to be genetically or morphologically distinct by follow-up studies (e.g., Ruiz-Garcia et al. 2015; Dumbá et al. 2018)

Alternative naming of tapir species (used by some taxonomists and ITIS; described by Groves and Grubb 2011)

  • Acrocordia indica (Desmarest, 1819) - Malay tapir
  • Tapirella bairdii (Gill, 1865) - Baird's tapir
  • Tapirus terrestris (Linnaeus, 1758) - Brazilian tapir, South American tapir, lowland tapir
    • Subspecies: Tapirus terrestris colombianus (Hershkovitz, 1954)
    • Subspecies: Tapirus terrestris spegazzinii (Amhegino, 1909)
    • Subspecies: Tapirus terrestris terrestris (Linnaeus, 1758)

Evolutionary History

  • Ancient group of animals; known as “living fossils”
  • Related to the primitive horse and the rhinoceros
  • Prehistoric tapirs inhabited Europe, North America and Southeast Asia, including China
    • Oldest fossils (Protapirus) are from Eocene of North America – 50 million years ago
    • Migrated to Asia 45-50 million years ago (Eberle 2005)
    • Genus Tapirus originated in the Miocene (25-5 million years ago)
      • Trunk/proboscis didn't grow to the present length until the last few million years.
    • Migrated to South America across Panamanian Land Bridge ~2-3 million years ago (Pliocene)
      • “Great American Interchange” saw many species travel to South America
    • Became extinct in North America in Pleistocene (lived in Florida until 11,000 years ago)
  • DNA Analysis (Ashley et al. 1996):
    • 3 Neotropical species diverged from Asian species 20-30 million years ago
    • 2 South American species (T. pinchaque, T. terrestris) are more closely related to each other than to T. bairdii (Central American species)
  • T. kabomani basal to clade containing T. terrestris and T. pinchaque (Cozzuol et al. 2013)


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Perissodactyla (Owen 1848) - odd-toed ungulates

Family: Tapiridae (Gray, 1821) - tapirs

Genus: Tapirus (Brisson, 1762)

*Species: Tapirus indicus (Desmarest, 1819) - Malayan tapir, Asian tapir
*Species: Tapirus bairdii (Gill, 1865) - Baird's tapir
*Species: Tapirus pinchaque (Roulin, 1829) - Mountain tapir, Andrean tapir
*Species: Tapirus terrestris (Linnaeus, 1758) - Brazilian tapir, South American tapir, lowland tapir

*Note on species taxonomy: Taxonomists are still debating the organization of tapir species. The above taxonomy is followed by IUCN, but also see alternate species listing in Taxonomy.

Page Citations

Ashley et al. (1996)
Eberle (2005)
Cozzuol et al. (2013)
Groves and Grubb (2011)
Fradrich and Thenius (1972)
IUCN (2009)
McKenna and Bell (1997)
Wilson and Reeder (2005)

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