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Tapir: The Ancient Fruitarian With the Tiny Trunk

tapir
You'd never guess that this mama tapir and her baby are related, would you? The gestation period of the female lasts between 390 and 410 days (13 to 14 months). Andrew Milligan-PA Images/Getty Images

The paleobiology of the Eocene epoch was a whole mood. This period lasted from around 56 to 34 million years ago, mind you, so it was during the period when mammals really started feeling their oats — the dinosaurs were gone and never coming back, so why not become extremely large and do outrageous things with horns and tusks and various face lumps — Google it, the Eocene was bananas.

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Living Fossils

Very few mammals exist today that evolved in the Eocene and remain almost completely unchanged. But one of those animals is the tapir, a large, herbivorous mammal whose look is very on-brand for the Eocene: a slick, pig-like body, tiny eyes positioned on either side of what seems to be a very short trunk or a comically pronounced overbite, teddy bear ears, feet that look like a conglomeration of a goat's hoof and a dog's paw rendered by a plush toy artist. They're fabulous to behold.

But the tapir is more than just a pretty face. Though they look sort of like a cross between an elephant and a hippo, tapirs are most closely related to horses and rhinos. They're large — the biggest is the Malaysian tapir (Tapirus indicus), which is the only species native to Asia, and is arguably the splashiest looking one because it looks like it's dressed up for Halloween as a OREO Double Stuf cookie, with black front- and hindquarters and a wide, white stripe in the middle.

Although they're not imposingly tall animals — the real giants stand about 4 feet (1.2 meters) — they're large: A full grown Malaysian tapir can weigh in at around 720 pounds (350 kilograms). Luckily, they're pretty docile, although they can become dangerous if you mess with their babies. And in spite of their girth, they have high-pitched voices. They communicate with each other by whistling and squealing kind of like tropical birds.

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Herbivorous Helpers

Of the four tapir species living in Central and South America and one in Southeast Asia, all are essential to the ecosystems they call home. Tapirs are herbivorous — they only eat plants, but they're truly not picky about which plants they eat: grasses, fruits, leaves, twigs are all fair game. They have prehensile snouts that act kind of like elephant trunks, which the tapir uses to reach, grasp and pluck their food. They're capable and efficient feeders, which means these large herbivores can really help a forest out.

A 2010 study published in the journal Biotropica found that the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) in the southwestern Amazon basin spreads the seeds of at least 122 plant species, representing 68 genera and 33 families.

Not only that, tapirs and other large herbivores help a forest's capacity to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it in the various parts of the plant. Because trees are essentially big carbon storage lockers, and large birds and fruit-eating mammals like tapirs and monkeys spread seeds of large trees in the tropics, they're essential to both the ecosystem and the planet. By distributing the seeds of large trees around the landscape through their poop, they make possible the big, dense, climate-change-squashing forests that our planet needs so desperately right now.

"Tapirs eat a lot of fruit, which normally falls downhill. But a tapir can take fruit UP hill — and conveniently deposit it with a nice pile of fertilizer to help the seeds grow," says Sy Montgomery, naturalist and author of The Tapir Scientist, in an email. "Tapirs are gardeners in the Edens they inhabit."

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Tapirs Are In Peril

Tapirs might occupy one of the most important ecological niches on the planet, but due to habitat loss and hunting, all four species of tapir are included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species: Baird's tapir (Tapirus bairdii) of Central America, the mountain tapir (Tapirus pinchaque) of South America and the Malayan tapir are all classified as Endangered, while the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris), is labeled Vulnerable.

"Tapirs are threatened by hunting for meat, legal habitat encroachment and by people illegally entering their protected parks to cut timber and farm illegally," says Montgomery.

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