Tapirus pinchaquemountain tapir

Geographic Range

Mountain tapirs live in the high northern Andes, in the paramos and cloud forests of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. (Todd, 1999)


Mountain tapirs live in forests and grasslands at altitudes above 2,000 m in the Andes of South America. (Nowak, 1999; Todd, 1999)

  • Range elevation
    2000 (low) m
    6561.68 (low) ft

Physical Description

Mountain tapirs are the smallest of the four species of tapir. They have thin skin with thick fur, including a thick undercoat. The undercoat and long-haired outer coat protect mountain tapirs from cool night temperatures, which can sometimes reach freezing. Their fur isreddish-brown to black and about 2.5 cm (1 in) in length. They are normally 1.8 meters in length and reach a height of about 0.9 meters. White lips and ear tips are two other notable characteristics of mountain tapirs.

Tapirs have long, massive bodies, very short and slender legs, a short neck and a short, thick tail with eleven coccygeal vertebrae. Tapirs also have small, rounded ears which are immobile, but give a tapir a keen sense of hearing. They generally have a rounded rear and tapered front which makes them well suited for quick movement through and around underbrush.

Tapirs' most notable feature is their proboscis, which is an extension of their lips and snout, and with transverse nostrils at the tip. The surface of the nose is highly glandular and runs from the nostrils down the underside of the trunk and emerges in the palate. This structure is used by the tapirs for olfaction, similar to the Jacobson's organ of snakes. Tapirs have an exceptional sense of smell.

The radius and ulna are separate and equally developed and the fibula is complete. The forefoot has 4 digits, 3 main digits and a smaller outer fourth digit, which normally does not touch the ground. The small digit helps the tapir move through soft ground. The hindfoot, however, has only 3 digits.

All tapirs have chisel-like incisors. The third upper incisor is shaped like a canine but is larger than the true canine, and the third lower incisor is greatly reduced. In addition, the 2 lower canines are well developed, while the 2 upper canines are reduced in size. The canines are conical and are seperated from the premolars by a diastema. All cheek teeth lack cement and are lowcrowned with transverse ridges and cusps. Tapir skulls are short and laterally compressed, with a high braincase. The nasal bones are short and project freely which causes their skulls to look gladiator-like.

Their eyes are small and flush with the side of the head. The eyes of mountain tapirs are highly developed and are normally brown in color but some may even have a bluish cast to them. The bluish cast to the eyes has recently been studied and is said to have been caused by excessive exposure to light.

Female tapirs have a single pair of mammae in the groin. (Grzimek, 1990; Nowak, 1999; Todd, 1999)

  • Range mass
    136 to 182 kg
    299.56 to 400.88 lb
  • Average length
    1.8 m
    5.91 ft


Males will often fight for a female. Once a winner is established mating begins. A heated courtship ritual precedes mating in all tapir species. The sexually excited tapirs make short wheezing sounds or shrills, whistling sounds, and may occasionally spray urine. Once this has ended, a male and female stand nose to tail and try to sniff one another's genitalia. This leads to circling movements that quickens over time.

While copulating, tapirs bite at each other's ears, feet and flanks. The mother stands up will giving birth and the young are born head first. Their eyes are open and they can stand and walk soon after birth. Males do not participate in raising young.

Mountain tapirs live about 30 years and have a gestation period of 13 months. They usually mate just before the beginning of the rainy season and give birth early in the rainy season of the following year. A female normally has one calf every second year. Twins are rare. At birth, a calf weighs about 4-7kg. The young remain in a well-sheltered spot, but after about a week begin to follow their mother. They remain with their mother for about 1 year and nurse for at least 6 months. Young tapirs have a different coat pattern than adults. It is dark reddish-brown with yellow and white stripes and spots. This pattern is normally lost around 6 months. Tapirs become sexually mature at about 3-4 years of age. (Grzimek, 1990; Todd, 1999)

  • Average number of offspring
  • Average gestation period
    398 days


  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    28.5 (high) years


Tapirs are shy and docile animals that frighten easily. They are primarily solitary but at times small tapir families have been seen in the wild. These families are normally a mother with her offspring but occasionally a male and female may mate for life. Tapirs are territorial with partially overlapping areas. When two tapirs come in contact, they become highly aggressive towards each other. They will bare their teeth and move their ears forward to display their hostility. It is normally at this point that one of the tapirs will retreat. If a fight occurs, they will try to bite the other's hind legs. They often circle as they attempt to bite each other's hind legs. Because tapirs have sharp incisors, this type of fighting often leads to serious wounds.

Tapirs like to bathe and will go to rivers, streams, mudholes and pools for this purpose. They are exceptional swimmers as well as climbers and can "bulldoze" paths through underbrush. Tapirs spend much of their time bathing to regulate their body temperatures, and to escape from predators. Mountain tapirs can remain submerged for minutes at a time and will poke their trunk about the surface of the water to breathe. This allows them to remain concealed from hunters and predators.

Tapirs will also wallow in mudholes to cover their skin with mud, which helps them avoid being bitten by insects. They will also rub their bodies against trees to remove ticks and loose hair.

Scent is used as one of their most important forms of communication. Males may urinate to leave scent marks, which advertise territorial boundaries. (Downer, 1996; Nowak, 1999; Todd, 1999)

Home Range

Mountain tapirs have an average home range of about 880 hectares.

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

Mountain tapirs are herbivores that generally feed at night. Mountain tapirs eat a variety of tough, fibrous leaves of shrubs. Although their most vital food is myrtle trees and pampas grass, they seem to ingest a wide variety of vegetation, which may help them avoid accumulating a particular toxin. (Downer, 1996)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves

Ecosystem Roles

Mountain tapirs will snap off branches and knock over trunks, which makes more food available for smaller herbivores.

Mountain tapirs are also extremely important in seed dispersal, making them an important keystone species for the northern Andes. (Downer, 1996)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Mountain tapirs are hunted by humans for meat and for medicinals. (Downer, 1996)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

No known negative effects on humans.

Conservation Status

This species is in high danger of extinction. The population is fewer than 2,000 individuals and it is estimated that within the next 20 years there is a greater than 20% chance of their extinction. The large decrease in their numbers is due to extensive habitat destruction in the Andes.

Mountain tapirs have been completely eliminated from western Venezuela and northern Columbia but still inhabit Ecuador and southern Columbia. More than half of the forests in these regions have been destroyed between 1980 and 1989 and is habitat destruction is continuing even in national parks.

Another problem facing mountain tapirs is illegal poaching by local hunters. They are hunted for their meat as well as for their hooves and snouts, which are used as folk cures for epilepsy and heart ailments. The intestines are also eaten and are believed to help prevent infection by parasites. Hunters are able to obtain high prices for tapir products, accelerating the rate of their decline.

Mountain tapirs are sensitive to habitat disturbances and will disappear within a short time after cattle invade their territories and pollute their waters. Because they can only live in moist, humid ecosystems, these kinds of disturbances result in jeopardizing the existence of this critically endangered species.

Another major cause of the decreasing numbers of mountain tapirs is due to the destruction of forest habitats in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. This may be driving another tapir species, Tapirus terrestris, to higher territory causing competition between the two tapir species. There have also been suggestions that these two species are mating and hybridizing.

In order to protect mountain tapirs it is essential to protect large portions of intact habitat. This will ensure larger population sizes and reduce the detrimental genetic effects of small, fragmented populations.

The involvement of local peoples in mountain tapir conservation is required to prevent poaching and local habitat destruction. Local peoples must benefit economically for mountain tapir conservation to be effective. (Downer, 1996)

Other Comments

The name 'tapir' is derived from 'tapyra', a Tupi indian word. The generic name Tapirus is the Latin version of the Tupi form. (Grzimek 1990)

Members of the family Tapiridae appeared in the Upper Eocene of North America. Discontinuous distribution of the present day tapir species demonstrates that this family was once quite widespread. Fossil records show that tapirs originated in the Northern Hemisphere and occupied the landmasses between Asia and South America, where modern tapirs are now found. (Nowak, 1999)

Tapirs' closest relatives are horses and rhinos. Many of their behaviors are similar to both of their relatives.

The mountain tapir was discovered by Roulin, a French naturalist, in the eastern Andes of Colombia. (Downer 1996)

Only six mountain tapirs remain in the world's zoos. Three are found at the Los Angeles Zoo, where the first successful captive breeding occurred. It is very difficult to breed mountain tapirs in zoos so captive breeding programs are inviable. The Colorado Springs Zoo has a mountain tapir also.

El Sepulchro, Ucumari Regional Park, Central Cordillera, Columbia is one of the last sanctuaries for mountain tapirs (Todd,1999).

Tapirs have such a keen sense of smell; they can pick up the scent of a leaf of lettuce yards away.

Supposedly, tapirs smell like a crate of lettuce!

Baby tapirs look just like "striped watermelons on legs" (Todd 1999).

Although tapirs are quite docile, they have been known to throw tantrums, where they will bite and snarl.

Tapirs love bananas.

Tapirs use their proboscis or trunk to pull food into their mouths.

The four species of tapir have not changed dramatically in almost 20 million years (Todd, 1999). (Downer, 1996; Grzimek, 1990; Nowak, 1999; Todd, 1999)


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



living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

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


active at dawn and dusk


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.


an animal that mainly eats leaves.


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

keystone species

a species whose presence or absence strongly affects populations of other species in that area such that the extirpation of the keystone species in an area will result in the ultimate extirpation of many more species in that area (Example: sea otter).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


remains in the same area


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


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.


Downer, C. 1996. The mountain tapir, endangered 'flagship' species of the high Andes. Oryx, Vol 30, No 1: 45-58.

Grzimek, 1990. Grzimek's Encyclopedia. New Jersey: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.

Nowak, R. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press.

Tapir Specialist Group, 2004. "IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group" (On-line). Accessed November 09, 2004 at http://www.tapirspecialistgroup.org/.

Todd, S. 1999. "Tapirs Described" (On-line). Tapir Gallery. Accessed 11/09/04 at http://www.tapirback.com/tapirgal/.