Tapirs of Belize

What is a Tapir?

The Central American Tapir (Tapirus bairdii), also known as the Baird’s Tapir or Mountain cow, is the largest indigenous mammal in Central America.  They superficially resemble large pigs, with mature adults weighing between 150 – 300 kg (330 – 660 pounds). The body length ranges between 180 – 250 cm with a 5 – 13 cm tail.  Their height at their shoulders is between 73 and 120 cm.  The fur tends to be a dark brown to a reddish brown color. Some of the most distinguishing features of the Baird’s tapir are the white fringe of fur around their ears, white lips and a white patch of fur on the throat and chest.  They can also be recognized by their elongated upper lip which forms a flexible proboscis resembling a shorter version of an elephant’s trunk.  The body is stocky and supported by short, slender legs that enable them to rapidly navigate the dense undergrowth of the Central American rainforest.

tapir

Baird’s tapirs have been present in Central America for the past 35 million years and are known to occur in all of the districts in Belize as well as various other Central American countries. Within the tropical rainforests of Belize, adults will establish home ranges that are between 1.25 and 1.7 square kilometers in size.  Home ranges can be found in most tropical vegetation types and at elevations ranging from sea level to 3,600 meters. If available, Baird’s tapirs will prioritize secondary forest habitats over primary forests.  Secondary forest habitats are preferred due to the availability of understory plants that are used for foraging and protection from potential predators. Swamps, marshes and riparian forest habitats are also preferred due to the readily available supply of water.

The Tapir Lifestyle

Leaves from a variety of plants along with fruits, twigs, buds, flowers and grasses make up the bulk of the tapir’s herbivorous diet. Dietary preferences will vary based upon the seasonal availability of various plant leaves and fruits. The majority of their waking hours are spent foraging in one of three patterns.  Foraging is done in small areas in which they prioritize several species of plants, a small area in which they prioritize a single species of plant is prioritized, or they feed opportunistically on a wide variety of plants as they travel throughout their home range. Feeding is often done in secondary forests due to the high density of understory vegetation.  Most of the plants consumed by tapirs are highly digestible and contain few defensive toxins.

Tapirs are primarily nocturnal animals that can occasional be observed foraging or bathing in the early morning or latetapir-2 evening. Having a large body size in the tropics leads to a large buildup of heat. Nocturnal behavior is believed to be an adaptation to help them minimize the heat buildup that occurs during the tropical day. In an effort to stay cool during the day, they will often form a wallowing hole.  This is a shallow depression in which they will sleep during the day in an effort to stay cool.

Baird’s tapirs have the ability to breed during any time of the year but most of the mating takes place prior to the rainy season.  A single offspring will be born to the monogamous pair after 390 – 400 days of gestation. Both parents invest in the care of their offspring forming a family unit.  Females will nurse their young for approximately a year before they start the weaning process.  Once the young reach a point of independence they will move away from the parents in order to establish a territory of their own.

Ecology of Tapirs

Throughout history Baird’s tapirs have served as an important source of food for rural and indigenous populations across Central America.  Due to their limited and decreasing population size, they no longer serve as a stable food source for Central American peoples.  Their main predator, outside of human hunters, is the puma who has been known to prey upon young tapir.  Adults rely on their large size and camouflage to protect themselves.  At night they are extremely difficult to spot and during the day they often remain motionless, resembling large rocks.

Ecologically, tapirs will help disperse the seeds of the various plants they consume.  Their diet, however, fluctuates based upon the seasonal availability of fruits and leaves so they are not considered a consistent disperser of seeds.  Their main value to humans is the role they play in ecotourism.  They are large animals that are considered very charismatic.  Countries that are home to tapirs will often promote ecotourism in which people participate in guided tours of the rainforest in an effort to see these magical creatures in their native habitat. Foraging in agricultural areas, the transmission of infectious diseases and parasites from domesticated livestock in one area to livestock in another area and polluting water by defecating it are the only negative impacts that tapirs may have upon humans.  Most of these impacts are minimal due to their small population sizes and limited encroachment upon areas inhabited by people.

As of 2016, the IUCN Red List continued to classify Tapirus bairdii as an endangered species.  The current Central American population is estimated to contain approximately 3,000 mature individuals.  With over 70% of the forests in Central America having been destroyed in the past 40 years, habitat loss and fragmentation have played a significant role in the decline of the tapir population.  Low reproductive rates along with hunting have further contributed to their decline. Sadly, the reasons for their population decline have not changed and it is expected that they will see a 70% decrease in their population over the next 3 generations.  If these trends continue and significant conservation efforts are not implemented, Tapirus bairdii may be classified as Critically Endangered in the near future.

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Article by Dave Cox. Dave is an Associate Professor of Biology, author, and President of Howler Publications. He leads yearly study abroad trips to Belize, for students and community members, to study tropical ecology, marine biology and Mayan culture. If you would like to join Professor Cox on  a trip to Belize contact him at Dave.cox@llcc.edu for more details.

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