Tapirs of the Gray Fossil Site...Wait, what's a tapir?

Miocene Exhibits at ETMNH

Tapirs are by far the most frequently encountered animal found at the Gray Fossil Site. They account for over 90% of the larger animal remains found with over 100 individuals of all ages. Gray is, in fact, the most prolific fossil tapir site in the world. Despite this claim to fame, a surprising number of those who visit our museum have never heard of a tapir. This post will therefore serve as an introduction to these fascinating animals.

modern tapirs
Four of the five living tapir species; Lowland Tapir (top left), Baird's Tapir (top right), Mountain Tapir (bottom left), and Asian Tapir (bottom right).

The closest modern relatives to tapirs are horses and rhinos, all of which are part of a group of hoofed mammals called the odd-toed ungulates. The earliest tapirs are known to have lived during the early Eocene of North America, about 55 million years ago. These first tapirs were small animals, some no bigger than house cats. Later tapirs would grow to be many times larger. The five species alive today all range in mass from 200 to around 700 pounds (90 to 317kg).

Apart from size, tapirs have remained virtually unchanged over their long history. All species, both living and extinct, have muscular, compact bodies and toes ending in blunt hooves, four on the front feet and three on the rear feet. Tapirs also possess a short trunk or proboscis, similar to that of an elephant. This trunk is highly mobile and serves as a tool to gather and handle food. Tapir calves have a coat of short, brownish fur patterned with pale stripes and spots that camouflages them against the forest floor.

Modern Perissodactyls
Tapirs are part of a group of mammals called perissodactyls or odd-toed ungulates. Rhinos and horses also fall within this grouping.

Modern tapirs are found only in the tropical forests of South America and Southeast Asia. As recently as 13,000 years ago, however, these animals could be found all over the world as far as northern North America and Europe. Four of the five living tapirs prefer to live in warm, lowland forest environments. The Mountain Tapir is adapted to live in the cold highlands of the Andes Mountains.

All tapirs demonstrate a fondness for water and spend large parts of the day swimming or resting in rivers and lakes. They instinctively retreat into deeper waters when they sense danger. In their respective habitats, tapirs consume a wide variety of leaves and fruits. They are also very important for their ecosystems because they help disperse seeds, and many plants have come to depend on them.

A baby Lowland Tapir.
A baby Lowland Tapir.

References & Further Reading

Colbert MW (2005). “The facial skeleton of the early Oligocene Colodon (Perissodactyla, Tapiroidea)”. Paleontologica Electronica 8(12A) <Full Article>


Hulbert RC (2005). “Late Miocene Tapirus (Mammalia, Perissodactyla) from Florida, with description of a new species, Tapirus webbi”. Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History 45: 465-494 <Full Article>


Hulbert RC, Wallace SC, Klippel WE, Parmalee PW (2009). “Cranial morphology and systematics of an extraordinary sample of the late Neogene Dwarf Tapir, Tapirus polkensis (Olsen)”. Journal of Paleontology 83(2): 238-262 <Abstract>


Janis C (1984). “Tapirs as living fossils”. pp 80-86 in N. Eldridge and S. M. Stanly (eds), Living Fossils. Springer Verlag, New York <Abstract>


Olsen SJ (1960). “Age and faunal relationships of Tapiravus remains from Florida”. Journal of Paleontology 34: 164-167 <Full Article>

Contributed by Aaron Woodruff. 3/5/15 

Link to original post: http://etsunaturalhistory.blogspot.com/2015/03/tapirs-of-gray-fossil-sitewait-whats.html

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