Malayan Tapir, Tapirus indicus

Skeleton of a Malay tapir at the Museum of Zoology
Skeleton of a Malayan tapir at the Museum of Zoology

Oscar Wilson, graduate student, writes:

My mum sent me a picture in February of an animal I had drawn aged 4 and described as looking “like an elephant with a short nose”. She still doesn’t know how I knew what it was, but this was the start of a long-running obsession with tapirs which continues today. Sadly, my ability to draw has not improved…

Child's drawing of a tapir
Drawing of a tapir by 4 year old Oscar Wilson

Whilst they look a little bit like elephants and I’ve heard them described as anteaters and hippos in zoos, they’re actually much more closely related to horses and rhinos than any of these other animals. They often get overlooked compared to their more famous relatives, but as today (April 27) is World Tapir Day, it is the perfect time to celebrate these amazing animals.

The earliest tapir-relatives like Heptodon were around from about 55 million years ago, and tapir skeletons have looked very similar for roughly 20 million years. This has meant that some people have called them ‘living fossils’, and indeed they were included in the background of 2001: A Space Odyssey as an example of a ‘prehistoric-looking’ animal.

But this couldn’t be more wrong – tapirs are just amazingly specialized to the environments where they live. All tapirs are most comfortable in muddy forests and this has led to the evolution of their weird looking feet. Tapirs are completely unique among mammals in having four toes on their front feet and three toes on their back feet.

Skeleton of the foot of a tapir
Skeleton of the foot of a tapir

Look out for this the next time you’re in a natural history museum! This strange system means that they walk in complete confidence and almost complete silence on forest paths that induce panic in researchers trying to follow them.

Photograph of footprints in a muddy path
Footprints in a muddy path

Alongside their special mud-shoes, the four modern tapir species (mountain tapirs, lowland tapirs, Baird’s tapirs and Malayan tapirs) all share teeth with sharp blades for slicing leaves, babies that look like fluffy watermelons (in my opinion the world’s cutest baby animal) so that they can hide in the forest and a snout that looks like an elephant got its trunk caught in a machine. This is normally what people notice first about them, and it actually combines the nose and the upper lip. This means the structure is very flexible and allows them to grab food they otherwise couldn’t reach, as well as helping them to smell better and it can even be used as a snorkel when they go for a swim to cool off and escape predators.

Skull of a Malayan tapir
Skull of a Malayan tapir

Sadly, these four species all also share the risk of extinction. Three species are considered endangered by the IUCN and we are lucky enough to have two of these species in our gallery, including a complete skeleton of the Malayan tapir.

I have spent a large proportion of my MPhil studying this skeleton, as well as other specimens in the collection, and I’ve fallen even more in love with these animals than I was when I was four. They’re perfect for researchers – big enough that all the details on their skulls are visible, but not so big that you need help to lift them (looking at you rhinos…) but really I just love how unapologetically weird they are, waving their ridiculous little trunks in the air and making squeaking noises that would make more sense coming from a bird. They deserve much more attention than they get, and I’m glad that they get to be celebrated at least every April 27.

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