Mountain tapirs live in the high northern Andes, in the paramos and cloud forests of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.
Biogeographic Regions: neotropical (Native )
Colombia, Ecuador and possibly Peru and Venezuela
Mountain tapirs are the smallest of the four species of tapir. They have thin skin with thick fur, including a thick undercoat. The undercoat and long-haired outer coat protect mountain tapirs from cool night temperatures, which can sometimes reach freezing. Their fur isreddish-brown to black and about 2.5 cm (1 in) in length. They are normally 1.8 meters in length and reach a height of about 0.9 meters. White lips and ear tips are two other notable characteristics of mountain tapirs.
Tapirs have long, massive bodies, very short and slender legs, a short neck and a short, thick tail with eleven coccygeal vertebrae. Tapirs also have small, rounded ears which are immobile, but give a tapir a keen sense of hearing. They generally have a rounded rear and tapered front which makes them well suited for quick movement through and around underbrush.
Tapirs' most notable feature is their proboscis, which is an extension of their lips and snout, and with transverse nostrils at the tip. The surface of the nose is highly glandular and runs from the nostrils down the underside of the trunk and emerges in the palate. This structure is used by the tapirs for olfaction, similar to the Jacobson's organ of snakes. Tapirs have an exceptional sense of smell.
The radius and ulna are separate and equally developed and the fibula is complete. The forefoot has 4 digits, 3 main digits and a smaller outer fourth digit, which normally does not touch the ground. The small digit helps the tapir move through soft ground. The hindfoot, however, has only 3 digits.
All tapirs have chisel-like incisors. The third upper incisor is shaped like a canine but is larger than the true canine, and the third lower incisor is greatly reduced. In addition, the 2 lower canines are well developed, while the 2 upper canines are reduced in size. The canines are conical and are seperated from the premolars by a diastema. All cheek teeth lack cement and are lowcrowned with transverse ridges and cusps. Tapir skulls are short and laterally compressed, with a high braincase. The nasal bones are short and project freely which causes their skulls to look gladiator-like.
Their eyes are small and flush with the side of the head. The eyes of mountain tapirs are highly developed and are normally brown in color but some may even have a bluish cast to them. The bluish cast to the eyes has recently been studied and is said to have been caused by excessive exposure to light.
Female tapirs have a single pair of mammae in the groin.
Range mass: 136 to 182 kg.
Average length: 1.8 m.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Mountain tapirs live in forests and grasslands at altitudes above 2,000 m in the Andes of South America.
Range elevation: 2000 (low) m.
Habitat Regions: tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: forest ; mountains
Habitat and Ecology
Mountain tapirs are herbivores that generally feed at night. Mountain tapirs eat a variety of tough, fibrous leaves of shrubs. Although their most vital food is myrtle trees and pampas grass, they seem to ingest a wide variety of vegetation, which may help them avoid accumulating a particular toxin.
Plant Foods: leaves
Primary Diet: herbivore (Folivore )
Mountain tapirs will snap off branches and knock over trunks, which makes more food available for smaller herbivores.
Mountain tapirs are also extremely important in seed dispersal, making them an important keystone species for the northern Andes.
Ecosystem Impact: disperses seeds; keystone species
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: tactile ; chemical
Status: captivity: 28.5 (high) years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Males will often fight for a female. Once a winner is established mating begins. A heated courtship ritual precedes mating in all tapir species. The sexually excited tapirs make short wheezing sounds or shrills, whistling sounds, and may occasionally spray urine. Once this has ended, a male and female stand nose to tail and try to sniff one another's genitalia. This leads to circling movements that quickens over time.
While copulating, tapirs bite at each other's ears, feet and flanks. The mother stands up will giving birth and the young are born head first. Their eyes are open and they can stand and walk soon after birth. Males do not participate in raising young.
Mountain tapirs live about 30 years and have a gestation period of 13 months. They usually mate just before the beginning of the rainy season and give birth early in the rainy season of the following year. A female normally has one calf every second year. Twins are rare. At birth, a calf weighs about 4-7kg. The young remain in a well-sheltered spot, but after about a week begin to follow their mother. They remain with their mother for about 1 year and nurse for at least 6 months. Young tapirs have a different coat pattern than adults. It is dark reddish-brown with yellow and white stripes and spots. This pattern is normally lost around 6 months. Tapirs become sexually mature at about 3-4 years of age.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; viviparous
Average birth mass: 4270 g.
Average gestation period: 398 days.
Average number of offspring: 1.
This species is in high danger of extinction. The population is fewer than 2,000 individuals and it is estimated that within the next 20 years there is a greater than 20% chance of their extinction. The large decrease in their numbers is due to extensive habitat destruction in the Andes.
Mountain tapirs have been completely eliminated from western Venezuela and northern Columbia but still inhabit Ecuador and southern Columbia. More than half of the forests in these regions have been destroyed between 1980 and 1989 and is habitat destruction is continuing even in national parks.
Another problem facing mountain tapirs is illegal poaching by local hunters. They are hunted for their meat as well as for their hooves and snouts, which are used as folk cures for epilepsy and heart ailments. The intestines are also eaten and are believed to help prevent infection by parasites. Hunters are able to obtain high prices for tapir products, accelerating the rate of their decline.
Mountain tapirs are sensitive to habitat disturbances and will disappear within a short time after cattle invade their territories and pollute their waters. Because they can only live in moist, humid ecosystems, these kinds of disturbances result in jeopardizing the existence of this critically endangered species.
Another major cause of the decreasing numbers of mountain tapirs is due to the destruction of forest habitats in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. This may be driving another tapir species, Tapirus terrestris, to higher territory causing competition between the two tapir species. There have also been suggestions that these two species are mating and hybridizing.
In order to protect mountain tapirs it is essential to protect large portions of intact habitat. This will ensure larger population sizes and reduce the detrimental genetic effects of small, fragmented populations.
The involvement of local peoples in mountain tapir conservation is required to prevent poaching and local habitat destruction. Local peoples must benefit economically for mountain tapir conservation to be effective.
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: appendix i
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: endangered
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 1994Endangered(Groombridge 1994)
- 1990Vulnerable(IUCN 1990)
- 1988Vulnerable(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
- 1986Vulnerable(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1986)
- 1982Vulnerable(Thornback and Jenkins 1982)
Date Listed: 06/02/1970
Lead Region: Foreign (Region 10)
Where Listed: Entire
Population location: Entire
Listing status: E
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Tapirus pinchaque , see its USFWS Species Profile
The major threat to mountain tapirs in Colombia is human population growth in the Andean region. People settling in the region need land, consumables and services, and their activities lead to habitat destruction.
Additional threats include the development of hydroelectric dams, highways crossing protected areas, petroleum exploration, and electrical networks etc. There are numerous reports of tapir being hit by cars so infrastructure development through habitat is a potential major threat in m. There are numerous proposed highway and other projects in the Andes which would greatly increase vehicular mortalities. Once the construction of these highways is finalized, the vehicles will be able to drive at high speed and the animals crossing the roads will become even more vulnerable. Additionally, these roads will provide easier access to poachers, given the fact that the park lacks enough park rangers to patrol and protect the area.
Another problem in the area is the fact that mountain tapirs are in contact with cattle. Local poachers use the tapir skin to manufacture working tools (backpacks, ropes to ride horses, baskets etc.) and other domestic things such as carpets and covers for beds. Poachers sell tapir skin and feet for medicinal purposes.
Widespread cattle introduction into the last remaining mountain tapir refuges is a serious problem which will likely escalate in the near future. Breeding herds of cattle have been observed in western Sangay National Park in Ecuador, causing mountain tapirs to abandon areas in San Diego headwater area of park just to north of Sangay Volcano. Visits to other legal refuges of the mountain tapir, i.e. Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve in Ecuador, and reports from National Sanctuary of Tabaconas-Namballe in Peru and several parks in Colombia, indicate that the same problem with cattle invasion into mountain tapir sanctuaries is occurring and negatively affecting the mountain tapirs as well as increased hunting associated with vaqueros/ganaderos roundups of the mountain tapirs. The cattle come from small ranches in the vicinities of the park and compete with the tapirs for feeding resources inside the protected area. Besides the competition for food resources, there is a serious risk of transmission of infectious diseases and other etiological agents carried by the cattle, as previously documented for Baird’s and lowland tapirs in other locations. Another problem in Colombia is the fumigations being conducted in National Parks and all zones where cultivation of drugs can be found, including Andean forests in the Central and Oriental Cordilleras. These fumigations are authorized and promoted by the Colombian government, and are a major threat for the mountain tapir populations. The habitat is seriously affected and the animals can possibly be poisoned when in contact with the poison used for the fumigations (Round-Up), which is selective but can affect the availability of food resources.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
No known negative effects on humans.
Mountain tapirs are hunted by humans for meat and for medicinals.
Positive Impacts: food
The mountain tapir or woolly tapir (Tapirus pinchaque) is the second smallest of the five species of tapir, only the recently described Tapirus kabomani being smaller, and is the only one to live outside of tropical rainforests in the wild. It is most easily distinguished from other tapirs by its thick woolly coat and white lips.
The species name comes from the term "La Pinchaque", an imaginary beast said to inhabit the same regions as the mountain tapir.
Mountain tapirs are black or very dark brown, with occasional pale hairs flecked in amongst the darker fur. The fur becomes noticeably paler on the underside, around the anal region, and on the cheeks. A distinct white band runs around the lips, although it may vary in extent, and there are usually also white bands along the upper surface of the ears. In adults, the rump has paired patches of bare skin, which may help to indicate sexual maturity. The eyes are initially blue, but change to a pale brown as the animal ages. Unlike all other species of tapir, the fur is long and woolly, especially on the underside and flanks, reaching 3.5 cm (1.4 in) or more in some individuals.
Adults are usually around 1.8 m (5.9 ft) in length and 0.75 to 1 m (2.5 to 3.3 ft) in height at the shoulder. They typically weigh between 136 and 250 kg (300 and 551 lb), and while the sexes are of similar size, females tend to be around 25 to 100 kilograms (55 to 220 lb) heavier than the males.
Like the other types of tapir, they have small, stubby tails and long, flexible proboscises. They have four toes on each front foot and three toes on each back foot, each with large nails and supported by a padded sole. A patch of bare skin, pale pink or grey in colour, extends just above each toe.
Female mountain tapirs have a 30-day estrous cycle, and typically breed only once every other year. During courtship, the male chases the female and uses soft bites, grunts, and squeals to get her attention, while the female responds with frequent squealing. After a gestation period of 392 or 393 days, the female gives birth to a single young; multiple births are very rare.
Newborn mountain tapirs weigh about 5.4 to 6.2 kg (12 to 14 lb) and have a brown coat with yellowish-white spots and stripes. Like adults, baby mountain tapirs have thick, woolly fur to help keep them warm. Weaning begins at around three months of age. The immature coloration fades after about a year, but the mother continues to care for her young for around 18 months. Mountain tapirs reach sexual maturity at age three and have lived up to 27 years in captivity.
Tapirs are herbivores, and eat a wide range of plants, including leaves, grasses, and bromeliads. In the wild, particularly common foods include lupins, Gynoxys, ferns, and umbrella plants. It also seeks out natural salt licks to satisfy its need for essential minerals.
Mountain tapirs are also important seed dispersers within their environments, and have been identified as a keystone species of the high Andes. A relatively high proportion of plant seeds eaten by mountain tapirs successfully germinate in their dung, probably due to a relatively inefficient digestive system and a tendency to defecate near water. Although a wide range of seeds are dispersed in this manner, those of the endangered wax palm seem to rely almost exclusively on mountain tapirs for dispersal, and this plant, along with the highland lupine, declines dramatically whenever the animal is extirpated from an area.
When around other members of their species, mountain tapirs communicate through high-pitched whistles, and the males occasionally fight over estrous females by trying to bite each other’s rear legs. But for the most part, mountain tapirs are shy and lead solitary lives, spending their waking hours foraging for food on their own along well-worn tapir paths. Despite their bulk, they travel easily through dense foliage, up the steep slopes of their hilly habitats, and in water, where they often wallow and swim.
Mountain tapirs are generally crepuscular, although they are more active during the day than other species of tapirs. They sleep from roughly midnight to dawn, with an additional resting period during the hottest time of the day for a few hours after noon, and prefer to bed down in areas with heavy vegetation cover. Mountain tapirs forage for tender plants to eat. When trying to access high plants, they will sometimes rear up on their hind legs to reach and then grab with their prehensile snouts. Though their eyesight is lacking, they get by on their keen senses of smell and taste, as well as the sensitive bristles on their proboscises.
Males will frequently mark their territory with dung piles, urine, and rubbings on trees, and females will sometimes engage in these behaviors, as well. The territories of individuals usually overlap, with each animal claiming over 800 hectares (3.1 sq mi), and females tend to have larger territories than males.
Distribution and habitat
The mountain tapir is found in the cloud forests and páramo of the Eastern and Central Cordilleras mountains in Colombia, Ecuador, and the far north of Peru. Its range may once have extended as far as western Venezuela, but it has long been extirpated from that region. It commonly lives at elevations between 2,000 and 4,300 metres (6,600 and 14,100 ft), and since at this altitude temperatures routinely fall below freezing, the animal’s woolly coat is essential. During the wet season, mountain tapirs tend to inhabit the forests of the Andes, while during the drier months, they move to the páramo, where fewer biting insects pester them.
The mountain tapir has no recognised subspecies.
In Peru, it is protected in the National Sanctuary Tabaconas Namballe. The species needs continuous stretches of cloud forest and páramo, rather than isolated patches, to successfully breed and maintain a healthy population, and this obstacle is a major concern for conservationists trying to protect the endangered animal.
The Mountain Tapir is the least specialised of the living species of tapir, and has changed the least since the origin of the genus in the early Miocene. Genetic studies have shown that the Mountain Tapirs diverged from its closest relative, the Brazilian Tapir, in the late Pliocene, around three million years ago. This would have been shortly after the formation of the Panamanian Isthmus, allowing the ancestors of the two living species to migrate southward from their respective points of origin in Central America. However, the modern species most likely originated in the Andes, some time after this early migration.
The mountain tapir is the most threatened of the four Tapirus species, classified as "Endangered" by the IUCN in 1996. According to the IUCN, there was a 20% chance the species could have been extinct as early as 2014. Due to the fragmentation of its surviving range, populations may already have fallen below the level required to sustain genetic diversity.
Historically, mountain tapirs have been hunted for their meat and hides, while the toes, proboscises, and intestines are used in local folk medicines and as aphrodisiacs. Since they will eat crops when available, they are also sometimes killed by farmers protecting their produce. Today, deforestation for agriculture and mining, and poaching are the main threats to the species.
There may be only 2,500 individuals left in the wild today, making it all the more difficult for scientists to study them. Also, very few individuals are found in zoos. Only a handful of breeding pairs of this species exists in captivity in the world — at the Los Angeles Zoo, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, and, as of 2006, the San Francisco Zoo. In Canada, a mating pair is kept in Langley, BC, at the Mountain View Conservation and Breeding Centre. The nine individuals in captivity are descendants of just two founder animals. This represents a distinct lack of genetic diversity and may not bode well for their continued existence in captivity. The three zoos that house this species are working to ensure that the remaining wild populations of mountain tapirs are protected. Two mountain tapirs were sent from San Francisco Zoo to Cali Zoo, making them be the only captive tapirs in their natural home range; also, one male is kept in Pitalito, Huila, and it is possible to move it to the Cali Zoo to make a breeding pair.
- Diaz, A.G. et al (2008). Tapirus pinchaque. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 10 April 2009. Database entry includes a brief justification of why this species is of endangered.
- Grubb, P. (2005). "Order Perissodactyla". In Wilson, D. E.; Reeder, D. M. Mammal Species of the World (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 633–634. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494.
- Downer, Craig C. "Status and Action Plan of the Mountain Tapir (Tapirus pinchaque)." Tapirs: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan published by the IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group, 1997.
- Padilla, Miguel et al. (2010). "Tapirus pinchaque (Perissodactyla: Tapiridae)". Mammalian Species 42 (1): 166–182. doi:10.1644/863.1.
- Jorgensen, J.P. (1988). "Order Perissodactyla/family Tapiridae: Tapirus pinchaque. Sheet A-118.002.001.003". In Dollinger, P. Identification manual. Vol. 1a: Mammalia. Carnivora to Artiodactyla. Lausanne: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.
- Tapirus pinchaque, Animal Diversity Web
- Mountain Tapir, Arkive
- Bonney, S. and Crotty, M.J. (1979). "Breeding the mountain tapir, Tapirus pinchaque, at the Los Angeles Zoo". International Zoo Yearbook 19 (1): 198–200. doi:10.1111/j.1748-1090.1979.tb00563.x.
- Downer, Craig C. (1996). "The mountain tapir, endangered "flagship" species of the high Andes". Oryx 30 (1): 45–58. doi:10.1017/S0030605300021384.
- Goudot, Justin. "Nouvelles observations sur le Tapir Pinchaque (Recent Observations on the Tapir Pinchaque)," Comptes Rendus, Paris 1843, vol. xvi, pages 331-334. Available online with English translation by Tracy Metz.
- Downer, Craig C. (1997). "Status and action plan of the mountain tapir (Tapirus pinchaque)". In Brooks, D.M. et al.. Tapirs—status survey and conservation action plan. Gland, Switzerland: International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. pp. 10–22.
- Eye on Conservation: Tale of the Tapir from the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens website
- Mountain Tapir Conservation at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
- Podcast from the San Francisco Zoo
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