South American tapir: The Amazon’s largest land mammal

29 May 2017

The South American, or lowland, tapir is a massive herbivore. Adults can grow to between 1.80 and 2.50 meters in length (5.9 to 8.2 feet) and weigh around 225 kilograms (500 pounds), although individuals weighing as much as 300 kilograms (700 pounds) have been reported. Adult tapirs are uniformly dark brown in color, which serves as excellent camouflage as they move through the forest at night or rest among thick undergrowth during the day, singly or in pairs. Their young are born with a mottled brown and white coat, and this coloration disappears when they reach around eight months of age. In the wild, tapirs can live for between 25 and 30 years.


In spite of their enormous bulk, tapirs are passive, timid mammals, and are therefore rarely seen in the forest. It is very common, however, to see their tracks on forest trails, and they can be observed at night when they arrive at clay licks to feed on the mineral deposits found at such locations.  


As the largest land mammal in the Amazon basin, in Peru the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) is commonly known as the “sachavaca”, meaning “forest cow”.  In fact, they are entirely unrelated to cattle and are cousins of the horse, zebra and rhinoceros.  They have extremely sharp teeth, adapted to efficiently strip the small branches that form part of their diet. Their unusual appearance is accentuated by their highly sensitive long, prehensile snouts, which they employ when feeding to hold down and remove vegetation. The tapir’s snout is so mobile that the animal can explore a 30 centimeter radius without needing to move its head.


Tapirs have a very good sense of smell and their hearing is particularly acute, while their eyesight is rather poor. They use their hearing and sense of smell to detect threats in their forest environment, and in spite of their great size they are able to move very quickly in order to escape danger. Their natural predators include black caimans, jaguars and pumas, and traditionally they have been hunted by humans for their meat. Their poor eyesight has led to reports of spooked tapirs colliding with humans on nighttime trails, or crashing through campsites and even tents as they flee from a perceived threat.


These large mammals are renowned for their considerable stamina. They are able to cover great distances at speed, and to negotiate steep slopes and rugged terrain, apparently without effort. Their favored habitat is lowland forest close to water sources and they are excellent swimmers, often taking to the water when sensing the presence of possible predators in the forest.  They are also able to dive beneath the surface, a trait which has led native peoples to describe them as able to “walk” underwater. 







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