The tapir in Costa Rica: Characteristics, diet, and conservation.

Scientific name: Tapirus bairdii.

Territory: From southern Mexico to northern Ecuador.

La danta en NATUWA Costa Rica

Take a look at the unique physical characteristics of a tapir.

The tapir is an ungulate mammal characterized by limbs with an odd number of toes that end in hooves. Its central toe, more developed than the others, serves as support. The edge of its ears is white and it has an elongated snout with a trunk (proboscis) that it uses like a limb to reach leaves in the understory, roots, and tubers at the bottom of rivers. 

The tapir is strictly vegetarian and can weigh up to 300 kg. The gestation period is 400 days, after which it gives birth to a single offspring. Birth usually occurs between seven and ten minutes after the rupture of the amniotic sac. The offspring is born spotted and weighing between 8 and 9 kilos. It almost immediately breastfeeds from both of the mother’s breasts and stays with its mother for over a year. The tapir’s spots disappear at around 4 months of age. The males have a larger head than females. These large mammals can live for 25 to 30 years.

What kind of animal is the Central American Tapir?

The Central American tapir, known as danta in Costa Rica, is a species of terrestrial perissodactyl mammal that belongs to the tapiridae family. This beautiful and slender animal plays an important role as a seed disperser and is in danger of extinction. In the world, there are five species of tapir, each with its own common name and respective geographic location. These species are:”

Tapirus bairdii (Baird’s tapir): This species is found in Central America, including countries such as Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.

Tapirus kabomani (Amazonian tapir): This species inhabits the Amazon region, specifically parts of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru.

Tapirus terrestris (Brazilian tapir): This species is found in South America, in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Uruguay.

Tapirus indicus (Malayan tapir): This species is native to the regions of Asia, specifically in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar.

Tapirus pinchaque (Mountain Tapir): This species is found in the Andes, in countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela.

Each of these tapir species has its own habitat and geographical distribution, adapting to different environments in their respective regions. It is important to highlight the diversity and importance of conserving these species in their natural habitats to ensure their survival.

The Costa Rican tapir, or Central American tapir, mainly inhabits mountain cloud forests and belongs to the Perissodactyla order, just like horses. Tapir offspring are born with white spots all over their bodies, which makes them especially adorable.

Why is it important to conserve the Central American tapir?

Tapirs are also known as “gardeners of the forest” due to their influence on the structure and composition of the ecosystems where they live. This denomination is due to several reasons:

1. Seed dispersal: Tapirs feed on fruits and other plant materials, and then excrete the seeds in different areas through their deposits. This contributes to the dispersion of seeds throughout the forest, helping the regeneration of plants and the diversity of plant species.

2. Creation of clearings and regeneration areas: As tapirs move and feed, they tend to remove the layer of leaves, branches, and vegetation on the forest floor. This creates clearings and regeneration areas where seeds have better conditions to germinate and grow, favoring the diversity and structure of the forest.

3. Maintenance of vegetation: By consuming certain plants and parts of them, tapirs help control the excessive growth of some plant species. This prevents some plants from becoming dominant and promotes the coexistence of different species in the ecosystem.

4. Soil fertilization: Tapirs defecate in different areas of the forest, which provides nutrients to the soil and contributes to its fertility. This promotes a favorable environment for the growth and development of plants, strengthening the overall health of the ecosystem.

The Central American tapir plays a fundamental role as a “gardener of the forest”. Its ability to disperse seeds, create clearings, maintain vegetation, and fertilize the soil contribute to maintaining biodiversity and the balance of ecosystems.

Protecting this species is essential to guarantee the health and sustainability of our forests.

Where can we find the tapir in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica, recognized as a tourist destination for nature lovers, is home to the tapir in its territory. This magnificent mammal, considered a precious treasure, is the largest land mammal in Costa Rica. It attracts numerous foreign visitors eager to learn about and photograph it.

The tapir can be found in its natural habitat in various places in Costa Rica, from swimming in the beaches of Corcovado National Park to inhabiting the forests of Paramo in the Massif of Death.

Additionally, it can be spotted in the forests of national parks such as Santa Rosa and Carara, as well as in biological reserves such as the Alberto Manuel Brenes Biological Reserve.

In the country, there are also non-governmental initiatives dedicated to caring for young orphaned tapirs due to hunters. These initiatives aim to study animals and promote the conservation and protection of tapirs.

Moreover, environmental education is carried out for visitors, and environments are created where animals can carry out their natural behaviors. Some places dedicated to the conservation and management of tapirs include Zooave, La Marina de San Carlos, and our Sanctuary, NATUWA.

Reproductive biology of the tapir

Tapirs reach sexual maturity at three or four years old, both males and females. Females are annual polyestrous, meaning they go into heat approximately every 28 days and their heat period lasts one to two days. During this time, they are receptive to reproduction and can mate with males.

Once fertilized, the female gestation period lasts from 390 to 400 days and they only give birth to one offspring. The offspring stays with the mother for one year or more. During mating, they perform a courtship accompanied by repetitive circle movements, usually at night for a period of seven days. The courtship is accompanied by sounds emitted by the female and marking of the site with urine by both sexes.

Males emit a “coarser” sound than females and often do it frequently during the reproductive season. Tapirs emit bird-like sounds despite their robust size, similar to a whistle. They also make these sounds when they are nervous or suddenly surprised.

Aggressiveness is a determining factor among males that allows them to have greater reproductive success in nature. For this reason, captive breeding of tapirs can cause the female to suffer aggression from the male if the enclosure is not properly designed with the essential elements (tunnels, gates, corridors, optical barriers, etc.) to allow the female to escape from the male if necessary.

The mother gives birth to the offspring in a hidden place and in the first week of life or a few more days, she leaves the offspring alone while she goes to feed and periodically returns to breastfeed. The offspring depends on the mother until it becomes efficient at feeding in the forest, a process that takes approximately 10 to 11 months. At three months of age, tapir offspring feed on both milk and vegetation.

Tapir's diet, what does the tapir eat?

The tapir feeds on the undergrowth, and its diet consists of leaves, twigs, fruits, seeds, tree bark, and seedlings. Its highly flexible snout helps it to grab and break leaves and twigs while feeding. By feeding on the undergrowth, which is one of the main barriers to germination, the tapir promotes the growth of seedlings in forest areas.

The foliage that forms the basis of the tapir’s diet is composed of cellulose, which cannot be digested by its digestive system because its enzymes cannot do so. Like other herbivorous mammals, tapirs have microorganisms in their digestive system that help break down cellulose into simpler molecules that can be used as nutrients through fermentation processes.

Freshwater is an essential component of the tapir’s diet and is necessary for good digestion. They use rivers and lagoons to deposit their feces in low and clear areas.

Tapirs are monogastric animals, which means they can digest cellulose quickly, but with less efficiency than the stomachs of ruminants, which are divided into several gastric chambers. While ruminants take 60 hours to digest cellulose and absorb 60% of carbohydrates, tapirs take 48 hours and only digest 45% of nutrients. This is reflected in their feces, which are large and easily show undigested parts of the leaves they have consumed.

What do tapir offspring look like?

Female tapirs give birth to only one calf, which is born with a reddish-brown color and covered in spots and stripes all over its body. The average weight at birth is around 8 or 9 kilograms. Just 30 minutes after being born, the calf stands up on its four legs and starts walking in search of its mother’s two mammary glands to feed. Despite being a newborn, it emits the characteristic tapir sound as a way of communicating with its mother.

Management of captive elephants

Through our work in managing captive tapirs, we ensure their well-being and proper care. We have observed that captive tapirs can be more prone to skin diseases due to excessive exposure to sunlight. We believe this is because they receive a greater amount of solar radiation than in their natural environment. Therefore, we make sure to provide them with adequate shaded areas to protect their skin and prevent possible dermatological problems.

As for diet, we have designed a balanced diet for our captive tapirs, which includes fruits, vegetables, and forage. We especially value forage as a form of environmental enrichment, as it allows these magnificent mammals from Costa Rica to have good physical and mental conditions. Forage gives them the opportunity to perform natural search and feeding behaviors, which contributes to their overall well-being.

At the NATUWA Wildlife Center, we have the privilege of housing nine specimens of Tapirus bairdii. Four of them were rescued by our sanctuary, as they were unfortunately going to be used as food by people.

In addition, we have had the honor of witnessing the birth of two offspring within our program for the reproduction of endangered animals. These breeding efforts are essential in contributing to the conservation of this threatened species, and we are proud to be part of this valuable work.”

What sound do tapirs make?

Tapirs emit sounds that resemble those of a bird, such as a whistle. Usually, they make these sounds when they are nervous. During mating courtship, the female is primarily heard emitting these sounds, especially during nighttime hours. The female and her offspring also communicate with each other through this curious sound.

Males also emit sounds, mainly during courtship with the female. Up to five different types of sounds have been recorded for both sexes, used for different processes such as reproduction, socialization, mood, location, and territoriality.

¡Escucha el sonido del tapir!

Volunteer program with Baird's tapirs or dantas.

We have an exciting volunteer program focused on caring for tapirs at NATUWA. In our facilities, we house nine incredible tapirs, including 5 females and 4 males.

If you are interested in being part of their care and contributing to their conservation, we invite you to join Natuwa in any of our available programs: Biology ProgramVeterinary Internships and Volunteer Program.

Each of these programs offers a unique perspective to address the needs and conservation of tapirs. In the Biology Program, you will have the opportunity to study their behavior, diet and interaction with the environment.

Through the Veterinary Program, you can participate in their healthcare, learn about their anatomy and assist with necessary medical check-ups and treatments.

If you prefer to get involved in more general tasks, the Volunteer Program will allow you to collaborate in various activities related to feeding, cleaning enclosures and environmental enrichment for the tapirs.

Regardless of the program you choose, you will have the opportunity to work directly with these fascinating animals, learn from conservation experts and significantly contribute to the protection of tapirs.

Join us on this journey and be part of the effort to preserve this unique and wonderful species!

Come and meet our incredible animals!

Tapirs in Natuwa: An intimate glimpse of these majestic creatures!

Citar como: NATUWA, R. (Ed). 2023. La danta en Costa Rica y su manejo en cautiverio. NATUWA, Aranjúez, Puntarenas, Costa Rica.