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.
region that connects North America and South America, including the Isthmus of Panama.
management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.
organism threatened with extinction.
history of life as documented by fossils.
environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.
organism that eats mainly plants and other producers.
characteristic to or of a specific place.
living organism that has survived in the same form as its fossilized ancestors.
long, narrow mouthpart used by many insects for piercing and sucking.
group of similar organisms that can reproduce with each other.
mammal with hooves, usually divided into even-toed ungulates (cattle, camels, deer) and odd-toed ungulates (horses, zebras, rhinoceroses).