Tapir - Encyclopedia

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TAPIR, any existing representative of the perissodactyle section of ungulate mammals with five front and three hind toes, and no horn. Tapirs are an ancient group with many of the original characters of the primitive Ungulates of the Oligocene period, and have undergone but little change since the Miocene. On the fore-feet the four toes correspond to the second, third,. fourth and fifth fingers of the human hand. The toes are enclosed in hoofs, and the under surface of the foot rests on a large pad. Tapirs are massively built, with short stout limbs, elongated head, and the nose and upper lip produced to form a short flexible trunk.


The five existing species may be grouped into two sections, the distinctive characters of which are only recognizable in the skull. (A) With a great anterior prolongation of the ossification of the nasal partition, extending in the adult far beyond the nasal bones, and supported and embraced at the base by ascending plates from the upper jaw, forming the genus or sub-genus Tapirella. To this division belong two species, both from Central America, Tapirus bairdi and T. dowi. The former is found in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama; the latter in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. (B) With the bony partition not extending farther forward than the nasal bones (Tapirus proper). This includes three species, T. indicus, the largest of the genus, from the Malay Peninsula (as far north as Tavoy and Mergui), Sumatra and Borneo, distinguished by its peculiar coloration, the head, neck, fore and hind limbs being glossy black, and the intermediate part of the body white, the height at the shoulder from 3 ft. to 3 ft. 6 ins., and 4 ins. higher at the rump; T. terrestris, the common tapir of the forests and lowlands of Brazil and Paraguay; and T. roulini, the Pinchaque tapir of the high regions of the Andes. All the American species are of a nearly uniform dark brown or blackish colour when adult; but it is a curious circumstance that when young (and in this the Malay species conforms with the others) they are conspicuously marked with spots and longitudinal stripes of white or fawn colour on a darker ground.

In habits all tapirs appear to be very similar. They are solitary, nocturnal, shy and inoffensive, chiefly frequenting the depths of shady forests and the neighbourhood of water, to which they frequently resort for the purpose of bathing, and in which they often take refuge when pursued. They feed on various vegetable substances, as shoots of trees and bushes, American Tapir (Tapirus). buds and leaves, and are hunted by the natives of the lands in which they live for the sake of their hides and flesh.

The singular fact of the existence of animals so closely allied as the Malayan and the American tapirs in such distant regions of the earth and in no intervening places is accounted for by the geological history of the race, for the tapirs once had a very wide distribution. There is no proof of their having lived in the Oligocene epoch, but in deposits of Miocene and Pliocene date remains undistinguishable generically and perhaps specifically from the modern tapirs (though named priscus, T. arvernensis, &c.) have been found in France, Germany and in the Red Crag of Suffolk. Tapirs appear, however, to have become extinct in Europe before the Pleistocene period, as none of their bones or teeth have been found in any of the caves or alluvial deposits in which those of elephants, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses occur in abundance; but in other regions their distribution at this age was far wider than at present, as they are known to have extended eastward to China (T. sinensis) and westwards over the greater part of the southern United States of America, from South Carolina to California. Thus there is no difficulty in tracing the common origin in the Miocene tapirs of Europe of the now widely separated American and Asiatic species. It is, moreover, interesting to observe how slight an amount of variation has taken place in forms isolated during such an enormous time.


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