New species of tapir found in the Amazon

A newly described species of tapir, Tapirus kabomani, was hiding in plain sight in the Amazon. Local people, who have long known that the animal exists, helped researchers identify the new species in camera trap photos like this one.

Samuel Nienow

Somewhere within the American Museum of Natural History in New York City lies the partial skull and skin of a young adult male tapir, item number 36661, collected by former president Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. (Of course, “collected” probably means “hunted, shot and killed” when we’re talking about the big game hunter.) In 1914, Roosevelt would write that the local hunters had told him that his tapir was “a distinct kind.” The tapir’s remains made their way into the hands of scientists, who disagreed with the locals and decided it was just another Tapirus terrestris, the South American tapir.

Well, the locals were right after all. Roosevelt’s tapir was actually a member of another species, recently named Tapirus kabomani by Mario A. Cozzuol of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil and colleagues. Their study appears in the December Journal of Mammology.

Tapirs look like big pigs with elongated faces. That snoutlike proboscis is prehensile, allowing the animals to grab any foliage within their reach. Until the new species was discovered, there were five recognized species of tapir — four in South and Central America and one in Asia. It was while the research team was investigating differences between the four New World species that they made their discovery.

A decade ago, Cozzuol was examining tapir skulls and found an outlier. Local hunters and Karitiana Indians then provided tapir specimens and genetic material for the scientists to analyze. Those analyses confirmed the fifth species of tapir living in the Amazon.

The new species is the smallest of all the tapirs, weighing in at about 110 kilograms compared with the South American tapir’s hefty 320 kilograms. Local hunters helped identify the animal from camera trap photos, which revealed an animal with dark-gray to dark-brownish hair, a mane that starts from the animal’s posterior and a broad forehead. Females have a gray-white area on the lower jaw.

“Based on knowledge of local peoples and our own observations it appears that the new species is not rare in the upper Madeira River region, in the southwestern Brazilian Amazon, where mosaics of forest and patches of open savanna are present,” the researchers write.

Much of the animal’s life and ecology are still a mystery — babies haven’t been seen, for instance — but an analysis of the animals’ poop indicated a diet rich in the leaves and seeds of palm trees. The researchers did not estimate the size of the T. kabomani population in their paper, but they do note that all the other tapir species are considered either vulnerable or endangered, their numbers driven low by hunting and habitat destruction.

And the region where the new tapir is found is a hive of human activity. Deforestation rates are high. Two large hydroelectric projects are being constructed along the upper Madeira River. A highway is opening up land to development. Agriculture is claiming natural open areas. “It is thus urgent to determine the conservation status, geographic range, and environmental requirements of this species, to understand how it is affected by human activities,” the researchers write.

With the announcement just a few weeks ago of the discovery of a new species of cat in the Amazon, it appears that this region of the world still holds many surprises for us. That’s all the more reason to do what we can to preserve this endangered ecosystem and all of its treasures.

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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