[ Tapirus terrestris ]
||up to 6 feet long
||up to 550 pounds
||plants, leaves, buds, and fruit
||carrots, sweet potato, romaine lettuce, grain pellets, alfalfa, mineral salts
||tropical zones of mainland South America (Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, the Guianas, Venezuela, and northern Argentina)
||tropical lowland forest and seasonally dry habitats
An Ancient Pachyderm
It's all relative
Tapirs are not necessarily the most recognized animal inside Pachyderm House. Their tough-looking hide somewhat resembles that of a hippo's, with short hair. Their flexible snout looks like a shortened elephant trunk. And their lumbering body is something like a small rhino’s. But tapirs are their own kind of creature, and what they resemble most is really another tapir. Their closest relatives are horses and rhinos... but evolutionarily speaking, tapirs pre-date them both!
Tapirs originally (millions of years ago) lived in North America. They eventually made their way to South America and into Europe and Asia. But about 10,000 years ago, most of the tapirs died out. Now there are only four species left: one primarily in Central America, two in South America, and one in Malaysia.
Take me to the river
For a hoofed animal that lives on land, tapirs are mighty fond of water. The preferred habitat of the lowland tapir will have a river, creek, lake, or flood plain nearby. By day, they prefer to hide out in the brush, while at night they take to the water.
Lowland tapirs are excellent swimmers, even from a very young age. Like hippos, they are able to walk quite rapidly along the waterways. And they’ll instinctively head to the water to get away from predators---like jaguars or pumas, or even man! Lowland tapirs have been known to completely submerge to shake a predator off their back.
Going to seed
Tapirs have an important role to play in their ecosystem. Lowland tapirs are major seed dispersers. Palm fruits are among their favorite snacks, and while exuberantly munching on the fruit, they’ll often spit seeds out. This means that the seeds land far away from their parent plant, spreading them to grow in new places.
Sometimes, the seeds come out the other end! That’s an even more effective way of making sure that seeds get to new places. As the tapir journeys through the forest, the seeds come out and new plants grow.
Times are tough for all rain forest animals, and the tapir is no exception. One of the palm fruits that the tapir likes to eat are also a favorite food for humans. These trees stand 13 stories tall. While tapirs will eat the fruit when it drops to the forest floor, humans often cut the trees down to harvest the fruit before it falls. That means no more trees for tapirs (and birds, and bugs, and monkeys, and humans!). Fortunately, people are now growing the palms in their gardens, where the trees stay much shorter and the fruit can be picked without cutting down the trees.
As part of the Tapir Taxon Advisory Group, Chicago Zoological Society participates in the care of tapirs at zoos. A former Brookfield Zoo keeper studied wild tapirs and worked with local communities to help them monitor hunting quotas, ensuring that enough tapirs survive to reproduce and maintain the population.
Tapirs at Brookfield Zoo:
Pachyderm House is home to most of the zoo’s tapirs. In colder weather, the tapirs are indoors. When the weather is warm, the tapirs are outdoors (across from the kangaroos); you’ll most often see their head and snout sticking up from their pool, or find them lounging in the shade. You can also find a tapir lounging in the wet sections of Tropic World/South America.