tapir (tāˈpər) [key], nocturnal, herbivorous mammal, genus Tapirus, of the jungles of Central and South America and SE Asia. The tapir is somewhat piglike in appearance; however, it is not related to the pig, but to the horse and the rhinoceros, with which it forms the order of odd-toed hoofed mammals. The body of the tapir is rounded and covered with sparse fur. Its snout is long and flexible. The legs are short and end in broad feet with hoofed toes; there are four toes on the front feet and five on the hind feet. Tapirs live in dense forest, browsing by night on leaves and twigs. Usually found near water, they swim well and drink a great deal. They often take to water when threatened and can crash through thick underbrush with great speed.
The Asian, or Malayan, tapir, T. indicus, of Malaya and Sumatra, is black with a white saddle extending over the rump. The adult is about 3 ft (90 cm) high at the shoulder and 6 to 8 ft (180–240 cm) long; it weighs about 650 lb (300 kg). The Malayan tapir is considered endangered. There are three New World species. The South American, or Brazilian, tapir, T. terrestris, inhabits marshy lowlands from Colombia to N Argentina. The adult, a little smaller than the Asian species, is a uniform dark brown, but the young is conspicuously striped and spotted. The Central American, or Baird's, tapir, T. bairdi, is similarly colored but almost as large as a donkey. It is found in undisturbed rain forests from S Mexico to NW South America; because of the continuous elimination of this habitat the existence of this species is threatened. The mountain tapir, T. pinchaque, is found at high altitudes in the Andes Mts. and has thick, black fur.
Tapirs were widely distributed in tropical regions until the Pleistocene epoch, when most species became extinct. They are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Perissodactyla, family Tapiridae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.