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South American tapir

Scientific name: Tapirus terrestris

Country: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, VenezuelaTapir

Continent: South America

Diet: fruit/veg, pellet, lucerne hay and leaves (browse).

Food & feeding: Herbivore

Habitats: Tropical rainforest, tropical grassland

Conservation status: Vulnerable

Relatives: Malayan tapir, horse, rhinoceros

Description: The tapir is related to other hooved mammals known as Perissodactyla (odd-toed ungulates) including the horse and rhinoceros. The tapir's hind feet have three digits, each hooved, while the front feet have four. It stands about one metre high and is about two metres long, has a heavy body and bristly waxy fur with a short mane running from the top of its head to its shoulders. One of its main features is a short proboscis, an extension of the nose and upper lip, like an elephant's trunk which has nostrils at the tip and is used to pull and hold branches of trees while feeding. It has weak eyesight and relies largely on hearing and smell.

Lifestyle: The tapir is mainly active after dark and spend the daytime resting in dense undergrowth. At night, it emerges to browse on plants growing in forest clearings and alongside streams and rivers. If frightened, tapirs will dive into a nearby stream or river. They are very good swimmers.

Family & Friends: Tapirs are solitary animals, only coming together in the breeding season. If they do meet outside of the breeding season, they are often aggressive towards one another. Sometimes they are aggressive even after mating with one another.

Keeping in touch: Males urinate at regular scent-marking posts, leaving messages for other tapirs to read using their extra-sensitive Jacobson's organ, a special extension of the nasal cavity inside the skull. They also call to one another in shrill, whistling screams. Young make a ticking sound that probably helps them stay in contact with the mother in dense vegetation. Before an aggressive meeting with another tapir, they may make sudden snorting sounds to each other.

Growing up: A female tapir breeds once a year with a gestation period of 12 -13 months. At birth, the single calf has a beautifully- patterned coat with spots and stripes for camouflage which begin to fade at six to eight months. The young tapir is able to breed at about two years and can live for 30 years in captivity.

Tapirs form regular trails that lead through almost impenetrable undergrowth. Their hooved feet carve muddy tracks that are sometimes used by civil engineers when looking for routes for new roads.

Conservation news: Tapirs, are under threat from hunting, forest clearance and swamp drainage. However, because of their shy nature they are often overlooked and the total population may be larger than previously realised. Tapirs were recently discovered living in Estacao Veracruz, a private reserve in Bahia State, Brazil. There is concern that small populations such as these are becoming separated by deforestation.