Plants and Animals

New species of tapir discovered in South America

December 17, 2013 | by Lisa Winter

Photo credit: Cozzuol et al.

For the first time since 1865, a new species of tapir has been discovered. While indigenous tribes knew about the animal it had escaped official documentation in scientific literature until now. The  results were published in the Journal of Mammalogy by lead author Mario A. Cozzuol from the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil.

The newly discovered species, Tapirus kabomani, is the fifth species of tapir on record. Though it is the smallest of the five, it is one of the largest animals in all of South America. It is about 4.2 feet (130 centimeters) from tip to tail, stands about 3 feet (80 centimeters) off the ground and weighs in at about 240 pounds (110 kilograms). Because the Brazilian tapir is a much larger 720 pounds (320 kilograms) there is the potential that T. kabomani will be declared a pygmy species. Its range is in the Amazon, in between Brazil and Colombia. Tapirs are in the order Perissodactyla, along with horses and rhinoceroses. 

The local tribes are very familiar with the Kabomani, as it is a staple in their diets. They had tried to tell conservation officials about its existence before. The announcement fell on deaf ears, as some assumed the tribespeople were mistaken in their claims of a tapir that was much smaller and darker than the tapirs on record. 

About ten years ago, Cozzuol had discovered a tapir skull that was morphologically different than the well-known Brazilian tapir. Genetic analysis proved it came from a different species, so he set out to find it and describe it for the scientific community. He and his team took a different approach than other researchers and decided to use the local tribes’ extensive information about the area rather than dismissing it. With their assistance, the team was able to set up wildlife cameras and gather many more bones for analysis.

Finally, the team was able to properly describe this tapir. They determined that this species diverged from the Brazilian tapir 300,000 years ago. The species name, kabomani, is taken from an indigenous word for tapir, in honor of those who helped Cozzuol et al. make the description.

Though tapirs have been on the planet for 50 million years, all five species (four in South America and one in Asia) are in danger of becoming extinct. Many indigenous people hunt tapir for food, but extensive habitat destruction and increasing global temperatures pose the biggest threat. Because the Kabomani’s full range and population has not been documented, conservationists will have to determine if the Kabomani will be listed as endangered. It is likely that it will be, as the other four species of tapir are listed as vulnerable or endangered by the IUCN, all with decreasing population trends.

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