The family Tapiridae contains tapirs. They are placed in one genus, Tapirus, with four species. Three of these species live in South America, ranging from southern Mexico through central America to Venezuela, and south to Paraguay and Brazil. The fourth species, the Malayan tapir, inhabits Burma and Thailand south to Malaya and Sumatra. Tapirs are shy, reclusive rainforest animals that live in nearly any wooded or grassy habitat with a permanent supply of water. They have also been found in dry deciduous forests and mountain forests.

Tapirs are about the size of a donkey. Their body is rounded in back and tapering in front-- well suited for rapid movement through thick underbrush. They also have a very short tail. Tapirs have bristly hairs scattered all over the body, and an inconspicuous mane is present on two of the South American species. All the South American tapirs are uniform dark brown or gray in color, whereas the Malayan tapir is black on its hind legs and the entire front of its body, and creamy white through its midsection. All tapirs have a short, fleshy proboscis formed by the snout and upper lips. This proboscis is more elongated in the South American species. Tapir eyes are small and flush with the side of the head; their ears are oval, erect, and not very mobile.

Skeletal features include short, slender legs with radius and ulna separate and equally developed. The fibula is also complete. The feet are mesaxonic. The forefoot has 3 main digits, and a smaller one (the fifth) is only used when the tapir is walking on soft ground. The hind feet have 3 digits. All the toes are hoofed. Tapirs have relatively long, laterally compressed skulls with a high braincase and convex profile. The nasal bones are short, arched and freely projecting. The nasal opening is very large.

The dental formula of tapirs is similar to that of the equids: 3/3, 1/1, 4/3-4, and 3/3 for a total of 42-44 teeth. The incisors are chisel-shaped and canines are conical. All cheek teeth lack cement. They are low-crowned and strongly lophodont.

Tapirs have one offspring after a gestation of about 13-14 months. Young of all four species have striped markings which are lost after the first 6 months of life. The young are weaned after 10-12 months, and sexual maturity is reached at about 2-4 years. Tapirs live for approximately 30 years.

Tapirs are exclusively herbivorous, sheltering in thickets by day and emerging at night to feed in bordering areas of grasses or shrubs. They eat the leaves, buds, twigs and fruits of low-growing, terrestrial plants and also consume aquatic vegetation. They are very good swimmers and are fond of splashing in water and wallowing in mud. Tapirs are essentially solitary except for females with offspring.

The earliest records of tapirids in the fossil record are from the Early Oligocene. The Eocene genus Heptodon was remarkably similar to modern tapirs, except that it lacked a proboscis. Tapirs were once widespread in distribution, present in North America, Europe, and Asia until the late Pleistocene.

Tapirs have been extensively hunted for food and sport in some areas, although some Indian tribes refuse to kill tapirs for religious reasons. They have been known to damage corn crops and other grains in Central America, although they are not in general considered a pest species. Populations of all species have declined in recent years because of clearing of forests by humans for agricultural reasons. All species are currently classified by USDI as endangered.

Technical characters

References and literature 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.

Nowak, R.M. and J.L. Paradiso. 1983. Walker's Mammals of the World, 4th edition . John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.

Parker, S.P., ed. 1990. Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals, Vol. III . McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, New York.

Savage, R. J. G. and M. R. Long. 1986. Mammal Evolution: An Illustrated Guide. Facts on File Publications, UK. 251 pp.

Wilson, D. E., and D. M. Reeder. 1993. Mammal Species of the World, A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference. 2nd edition. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington. xviii+1206 pp.


Liz Ballenger (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, 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