• When it comes to the Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii), appearances can be deceiving. The Baird’s tapir is the largest mammal indigenous to Central America and is the national animal of Belize. With its short legs, barrel-shaped body, and long proboscis, this unique-looking animal may look like a cross between a pig and an elephant, but it is actually most closely related to rhinos and horses. The Baird’s tapir also possesses an agility that you probably wouldn’t expect at first glance. This odd-toed ungulate is extremely agile both on land and in the water, and it can even move easily on steep slopes.

    The tapir is considered a “living fossil,” since the fossil record suggests that its basic body shape has changed very little in the last 35 million years. However, its distinctive long proboscis is likely a more recent adaptation. The Baird’s tapir is an herbivore; it feeds on twigs, leaves, seeds, and fruit. It is primarily nocturnal.

    Although it once ranged throughout Central America, today the Baird’s tapir’s range is reduced to fragmented areas of habitat in Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and possibly Ecuador. Many of these areas are in nature preserves. It can live in a range of habitats, from grasslands to tropical forests to mountains, as long as it has access to water.

    The Baird’s tapir is considered an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and faces a number of threats. These threats are magnified by the species’ low birth rates. Habitat loss and fragmentation are the primary threats, along with hunting, diseases spread from domestic animals, and some capture for illegal animal trade. Conservation efforts are now underway in several Central American countries.

    1. The Baird’s tapir is considered a living fossil because of how little it has changed in millions of years. What are some other animals that are considered living fossils? 

      Answers will vary. Some common examples include red pandas, aardvarks, the Laotian rock rat, and horseshoe crabs.

    2. The tapir is most closely related to rhinos and horses, which may seem strange at first. What are the major characteristics that these animals have in common?

      Each of these animals is an ungulate. The major characteristic that defines an ungulate is its hooves. Horses, rhinos, and tapirs are all perissodactyls, or odd-toed ungulates.

    3. Over the last half-century, an estimated 70 percent of the forests in Central America have been cleared or significantly altered. This loss of habitat is a significant threat to the Baird’s tapir and other Central American species. What is being done to help stop deforestation in the region?

      Some governments in the region are creating laws to curb deforestation. Consumer pressure has also influenced some large, multinational companies to institute “no deforestation” policies along their supply chain. Ecotourism is also being developed to offer an economic alternative that does not result in deforestation. 

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    Central America Noun

    region that connects North America and South America, including the Isthmus of Panama.

    conservation Noun

    management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

    Encyclopedic Entry: conservation
    endangered species Noun

    organism threatened with extinction.

    Encyclopedic Entry: endangered species
    fossil record Noun

    history of life as documented by fossils.

    habitat Noun

    environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    herbivore Noun

    organism that eats mainly plants and other producers.

    Encyclopedic Entry: herbivore
    indigenous Adjective

    characteristic to or of a specific place.

    Encyclopedic Entry: indigenous
    living fossil Noun

    living organism that has survived in the same form as its fossilized ancestors.

    proboscis Noun

    long, narrow mouthpart used by many insects for piercing and sucking.

    species Noun

    group of similar organisms that can reproduce with each other.

    ungulate Noun

    mammal with hooves, usually divided into even-toed ungulates (cattle, camels, deer) and odd-toed ungulates (horses, zebras, rhinoceroses).