We present a synthesis of the available information about different aspects of natural history of the mountain tapir that have been compiled from different sources. We expect to continually add new information as new knowledge about the species is available through research.
Photos ©2017 Fondation Segré World Tapir Conservation Programme
Natural history facts
The mountain tapir was first described for science by Roulin in 1829 who used the name pinchaque, whose meaning in the language of the indigenous people of the Cauca region of Colombia was specter or ghost.
The mountain tapir is one of the four species of modern tapirs, which nevertheless maintain primitive traits of ancestors from fifty million years ago. The mountain tapir is the only species present in the high Andean mountains.
The mountain tapir is distributed in the Andean region from northern Peru to central Colombia, mainly above 2400 m, where it dominates the Andean forest and páramo.
In Peru it is distributed in the north of the country, in Ecuador it is distributed along the eastern cordillera and in Colombia it is present in the area of the Colombian Massif and up to the center of the central and eastern cordilleras.
The mountain tapir is a medium-sized mammal with an average length from head to tail of 180 cm and a height at shoulder level of 90 cm. It has a thick, dark coat that protects it from the low temperatures that prevail in its habitat. Like other tapirs, it has three hooves on its hind legs and four on its front legs. There is no marked sexual dimorphism, although mature females are usually larger than males of similar age.
The most developed senses are the sense of smell and hearing, while their eyesight seems less developed. It has a striking fringe of white hair around its lips and when it reaches maturity shows a hairless area on the lower back, where a kind of shiny callosity is formed.
Like the other tapir species, the mountain tapir has a simple digestive system, which is not very efficient for the digestion of cellulose. For this reason, it is more of a browser that looks for the tender shoots of bushes, hence the elongated trunk that helps it to reach these shoots and manipulate them to bring them to its mouth. As for the species it consumes, it does not seem to be very selective, since it needs to consume large quantities of forage to obtain the energy and nutrients it needs. Its limited ability to digest cellulose seems to motivate it to actively seek out more easily digestible wild fruits. It usually complements its diet with mineral licks found within its distribution areas, which seem to be a limiting resource for the species.
Mountain tapir females give birth to a single calf after a gestation period of 13 months. The calf remains with its mother for at least one year, so usually a female will eventually produce a single calf every two years. The maximum age at which a female can reproduce in the wild is unknown. These low reproductive rates make the species very vulnerable to the removal of individuals by hunting.
Mountain tapirs are most active at night, although there are records of activity at all times of the day. However, at night they avoid being disturbed by insects and are less exposed to predators, although the species has few natural enemies given its large size. They are vulnerable to be attacked by spectacled bears and pumas, especially juveniles and cubs. Movement patterns do not seem to be very broad, maintaining limited areas of activity, where they seem to find the necessary resources to live without expending so much energy moving to other areas. However, it is possible that in times of fruiting they actively search for wild fruits that fall to the ground, which may influence their movement patterns.
Mountain tapirs are considered solitary animals that only mate during the breeding and rearing season. The analysis of images obtained with camera traps shows groups of up to three individuals that come to the mineral licks at the same time; however, the implications of this on their social interaction are unknown.
The cubs remain with the mother for about a year, when they begin to shed their juvenile fur, characterized by a pattern of elongated spots that allows them to camouflage themselves from predators.
Mountain tapirs are generally tame, however when they feel threatened they defend themselves by biting and kicking. There are reports of hunters’ dogs being killed by mountain tapirs harassed during hunting operations.
There is no detailed information on how mountain tapirs communicate with each other. Although it is known that they use high-pitched whistles to communicate and that they use urine to mark their territory, further studies on this subject are needed.
Although there are no long-term studies with adequate sample sizes to draw definitive conclusions, a density of 1 individual per 600 hectares of habitat has been determined. However, there are many inconsistencies in the studies that have been developed so far on this subject, so this data is still preliminary. It is possible that under different circumstances different populations have different densities, so it is not possible to have an absolute figure for the whole species.
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