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.
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?
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?
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?
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry Central America Noun
region that connects North America and South America, including the Isthmus of Panama.
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.
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.
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).