Mountain Tapir, Tapirus pinchaque

The mountain tapir (Tapirus pinchaque), also known as the wooly tapir, is one of four species of tapir. This tapir is named after a mythical creature, called “La Pinchaque” that is thought to live in the same areas as the mountain tapir. The range of this tapir is small, including the páramo and cloud forest areas in the Eastern and Central Cordilleras mountains in Colombia, Ecuador, and the far north of Peru. It prefers to live at high elevations between 6,600 and 14,100 feet, therefore requiring a thick, wooly coat. These tapirs will move into the forests of the Andes during the wet season, and move back into the páramo areas when it is warm and dry.

The mountain tapir is known for its wooly coat that can reach up to 1.4 inches in length. The fur is thicker near the sides and underbelly, which is visibly paler than the rest of the dark brown or black fur on the tapir’s body. Like other tapirs, the mountain tapir typically has white tipped ears, but it also has white lips, although the color varies slightly among individuals. These tapirs are born with blue eyes, but as they age, the blue will change to brown. The average body length of the mountain tapir is 5.9 feet, and weight varies depending on the sex. Males can weigh up to 500 pounds, but females tend to be between 55 and 220 pounds heavier. Mountain tapirs are the smallest of all tapir species. The mountain tapir shares characteristics with all other tapir species, including a long, flexible snout. They have three toes on each hind foot and four toes on each fore foot.

Typically, mountain tapirs are solitary creatures and will forage for food on their own, but when they are around other tapirs, they will use high-pitched whistles as a form of communication. Like other tapirs, mountain tapirs enjoy water and can be seen swimming or wading around on hot days. Mountain tapirs are more active during the day than other species of tapir, but they are also active at night. They can sleep from midnight until sunrise, and may rest more during the hottest hours of the day. Mountain tapirs will mark their territory by using urine, dung, and scenting techniques, and females will even engage in this behavior.  Often times, territories will overlap. Male territories can reach 3.1 square miles, and females may claim even larger territories.

The diet of the mountain tapir consists of leaves, grasses, and bromeliads. Preferred plants include ferns, umbrella plants, Gynoxys, and lupins. Mountain tapirs are great at dispersing seeds, and are a keystone species within the Andes. The digestive abilities of this tapir are low, and coupled with the tendency to defecate near water, tapirs allow plants like highland lupine and wax palm the ability to grow more efficiently and in greater numbers. It has been noted that these plants decline greatly when mountain tapirs are no longer living in an area.

The courtship process between male and female tapirs involves the male chasing the female, nipping at her softly and emitting a series of grunts and squeaks. The female will often squeal during this process. Pregnancy lasts for a maximum of 393 days, after which one baby tapir is born.  Each baby is brown in color and shows the typical white spots and stripes that all baby tapirs are born with as a means of defense against predators. They are twelve to fourteen pounds at birth, and will mature slowly. The weaning age is around three months of age, but the mother will care for her young for around a total of eighteen months. Mountain tapirs can live to be twenty-seven years old in captivity.

It is thought that the mountain tapir branched off from the Brazilian Tapir in the late Pliocene era (nearly three million years ago), both using the newly formed Panamanian Isthmus to travel south. It is also thought that this tapir, the least advanced of all tapirs, may have originated shortly after this relocation in the Andes.

In 1996, the IUCN gave the mountain tapir the status of “Endangered”, and it is now the most threatened of all tapir species. It is thought that due to its small and patchy range, that the mountain tapir may already be past the stage of being able to maintain a genetically diverse population. The largest threats to these tapirs are human actions like deforestation, poaching, and mining. Traditionally, the mountain tapir was hunted for its meat and coats, and the snouts, toes, and intestines were used in folk medicine and as aphrodisiacs. Predators including spectacled bears, cougars, and sometimes jaguars do not pose major threats but to not help the preservation of these tapirs. There is an estimated 2,500 wild tapirs left.

There are many zoos who wish to help revive the mountain tapir population, but with a limited number of genetically diverse tapirs in captivity, this is a difficult task. There are breeding pairs in the Los Angeles Zoo, the San Francisco Zoo, and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, but none of these zoos are in the tapirs natural habitats. There is also one breeding pair in Langley, BC at the Mountain View Conservation & Breeding Centre. Two of the tapirs from the California zoo were sent to Cali Zoo in Cali, Columbia, an area of natural habitat for them. One male is kept in Pitalito, Huila. It is possible that this male could be sent to Cali zoo in order to breed and help release future tapirs into the wild.

Image Caption: A mountain tapir Tapirus pinchaque at the San Francisco Zoo. Credit: Elissa Berver/Wikipedia(CC BY-SA 2.0)