Perissodactylahorses, rhinoceroses, and tapirs

The name Perissodactyla means "odd-toed." This group of ungulates includes horses, tapirs, and rhinos. The name of their order derives from the fact that their middle toe is larger than the others, and the plane of symmetry of the foot passes through it, a condition called mesaxonic. Most species have three digits on the hindfoot and three or four on the forefoot, but in some only a single digit, the third, remains. Some species have horns, but these are dermal structures without bony cores, and they are located on the nasals or frontals in the midline of the skull. This contrasts with the horns of artiodactyls, which have bone cores, are paired, and are located on the frontals. The anterior part of the skull of perissodactyls is elongated and accomodates a full series of large cheek teeth (most have a total of 44 teeth). Molars and premolars are hypsodont in grazing forms such as horses, and brachydont in browsers such as tapirs. Modern species are lophodont (complexly so in equids), in contrast to artiodactyls, which tend to be selenodont or bunodont. Perissodactyls have a simple stomach, in contrast to the chambered structure of most artiodactyls. Their cecum is enlarged and sacculate, and in it some bacterial digestion of cellulose takes place.

Early in the Tertiary, this was a dominant group that included 14 families and many species. One extinct species of rhinoceros, Indricotherium ( = Baluchitherium), was the largest land mammal that ever lived, standing approximately 5.4 m tall at the shoulder and weighing around 30,000 kg (5 times the weight of modern elephants!). Now, all that remain are 3 living families, with 18 species in all. Their decline accelerated during the Oligocene and coincided with the rise of another group of large herbivorous and cursorial mammals, the artiodactyls.

Modern perissodactyls are native to Africa, south and central Asia, southern North America, and northern South America. Most species are herbivorous.

Literature and references cited

Carter, D. C.. 1984. Perissodactyls. Pp. 549-562 in Anderson, S. and J. K. Jones, Jr. (eds). Orders and Families of Recent Mammals of the World. John Wiley and Sons, N.Y. xii+686 pp.

Savage, R. J. G. and M. R. Long. 1986. Mammal Evolution, an Illustrated Guide. Facts of File Publications, New York. 259 pp.

Vaughan, T. A. 1986. Mammalogy. Third Edition. Saunders College Publishing, Fort Worth. vii+576 pp.

Click on a name below to find out more about that Family:

Family Equidae

Family Tapiridae

Family Rhinocerotidae


Phil Myers (author), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


uses touch to communicate