The biggest tapir

Purely because it's semi-topical - well, it was jokingly alluded to in the brief tapir article from the other day - here's a little bit of information about the world's biggest ever tapir, Tapirus augustus Matthew & Granger, 1923, the Pleistocene Asian species formerly known as Megatapirus (it's best known from southern China, but has also been reported from Java and Vietnam. Incidentally, some authors say that it survived into the Holocene). Some people estimate that this tapir was about 3.5 m long, and 1.5 m tall at the shoulder. Wow!

i-63c38f208da603a9dac1c4a89795c5f7-Megatapirus_Sept-2009.jpg

Now, I bet you're thinking... what, you mean Megatapirus has been synonymised? Alas, indeed it has (Colbert & Schoch 1998, Hurlbert 2005)... though in fact it was originally described as a 'subgenus' anyway (Matthew & Granger 1923) and most tapir workers have regarded it as a descendant of species conventionally included within Tapirus (e.g., Dong 2005). The photo above shows the only material of T. augustus I've ever seen (© Natural History Museum): unfortunately there's no obvious scale. But here's a much better photo, this time showing a complete skull... err, again without a scale...

i-40cba61e96f53147edca1cb265265ead-Megatapirus_augustus_Ryan-Somma_wikipedia_Sept-2009.jpg

The original skull material figured by Matthew & Granger (1923) is not bad, but it's not as complete as the skull shown here. I therefore assume that the skull shown above (I took the image from wikipedia) is a heavily restored version of AMNH 18433, the type skull from Matthew & Granger (1923) [help me out if you know more]. Estimated skull length is 53 cm. The nasals are particularly high set compared to those of living tapirs: this might explain why the animal in the picture above has been given an especially large proboscis.

Many fossil tapirs were essentially similar to the modern species. However, some - like T. augustus - were evidently much larger, while others (like little T. polkensis from Miocene North America) were smaller. Some were longer-limbed and hence would have looked different in proportions from extant forms. And Tapirus is not, of course, the only tapir genus: others include Eotapirus and Protapirus from the Oligocene and Miocene of Europe and North America, the Miocene Old World forms Palaeotapirus, Tapiriscus and Plesiotapirus, and the North American taxa Miotapirus and Tapiravus. Now, I'd just love to sit here and write for hours about extinct tapirs... but, I'm sorry, I can't.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on perissodactyls see...

Refs - -

Colbert, M. W. & Schoch, R. M. 1998. Tapiroidea and other moropomorphs. In Janis, C. M., Scott, K. M. & Jacobs, L. L. (eds) Evolution of Tertiary Mammals of North America. Volume 1: Terrestrial Carnivores, Ungulates, and Ungulatelike Mammals. Cambridge University Press, pp. 569-582.

Dong, H. 2005. Dental characters of the Quaternary tapirs in China, their significance in classification and phylogenetic assessment. Geobios 38, 139-150.

Hurlbert, R. C. 2005. Late Miocene Tapirus (Mammalia, Perissodactyla) from Florida, with description of a new species, Tapirus webbi. Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History 45, 465-494.

Matthew, W. D. & Granger, W. 1923. New fossil mammals from the Pliocene of Sze-chuan, China. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 48, 563-598.

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Damn, by "pictures" I was hoping you meant fuzzy camera trap shots from Xishuangbanna or something. Oh well, thanks for this anyway. But you didn't address the most important question: did it have a taste for human limbs?

A subgenus - surely the ICZN should get rid of that (assuming it would be up to them). Since the definition of a genus is effectively arbitrary how exactly can you define a subgenus plausibly?

I really can't see how this can be synonymised within Tapirus but coming from a predominantly Mesozoic grounding I do find mammalian naming conventions (in that they seem to lump genera a lot) to be completely different to that used for archosaurs etc which makes it hard to follow and remember what is what especially given the often large geographic and temporal differences involved.

I'm not a fan of populism and dumbing down but creating genera for extinct species (which don't get common names) with many species in them that really bear little resemblance except in detail leads to the obscurity of the animals in question which serves no sensible purpose. I guess that makes me a splitter - but not an uber-splitter :). Some people say that taxonomy is merely stamp collecting but I really think that science needs guiding principles that assist in making it open and accessible to people - its in the interests of everyone for it to be that way after all!

By RStretton (not verified) on 03 Sep 2009 #permalink

Why would a tapir (of any Genus) need such a bulky (and clumsy) proboscis?

By Zach Hawkins (not verified) on 03 Sep 2009 #permalink

Thanks for comments. Richard (comment 2): if the entity we traditionally call a genus is a clade (as it should be), and if you find a clade within that clade, you can name it if you want. In other words, it's fine to recognise a 'subgenus' if you want to, in my opinion. At the moment, Megatapirus only contains T. augustus, however, so is redundant. And I'm no tapir expert, but including T. augustus within Tapirus is ok, as it's really not that different from the other Tapirus species, plus there are others - like T. sanyuanensis - that appear 'intermediate' between T. augustus and other Tapirus species. Yeah, T. augustus is big and with highly vaulted nasals and distinctive teeth and so on, but it isn't radically divergent with respect to its relatives.

Zach (comment 3): if the proboscis was big, it was most likely not 'clumsy', but longer and more flexible than that of shorter-trunked species.

Could T. augustus be closer to Asian tapir (Tapirus indicus)? Asian tapir is sometimes put in it own genus or subgenus Acrocodia or Rhinochoerus. Maybe Megatapirus will turn to be Acrocodia augusta.

Tong et al. (2002) compared tooth and skull measurements of Asian tapir species and found T. indicus and T. augustus to be well separated (T. augustus is closest to T. sanyuanensis and T. sinensis). However, further work might show that all form an Asian clade. Any fossil tapir workers out there?

Tong, H., Liu, J. & Han, L. 2002. On fossil remains of Early Pleistocene tapir (Perissodactyla, Mammalia) from Fanchang, Anhui. Chinese Science Bulletin 47, 586-590.

Asian and Neotropical tapirs linneages must have been diverged since Late Miocene, what is old enough to put them in different genera, although a chronological criterium is not necessarily valid, since genera like Bufo or Geochelone can be tracked back to Cretaceous.

Some people estimate that this tapir was about 3.5 m long, and 1.5 m tall at the shoulder. Wow!

This is not the right thing to read right after SV-POW!. :-(

A subgenus - surely the ICZN should get rid of that (assuming it would be up to them). Since the definition of a genus is effectively arbitrary how exactly can you define a subgenus plausibly?

It is up to them, and you can't. That's rank-based nomenclature for you.

Some people say that taxonomy is merely stamp collecting but I really think that science needs guiding principles that assist in making it open and accessible to people

But taxonomy is not a science, and never has been. Phylogenetics is science.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 04 Sep 2009 #permalink

Even more interesting than a giant tapir is the fact that giant mammals in general were so common around the world in the Pleistocene. Maybe this only seems like a phenomenon because our modern world is so depleted in terms of giant mammals (all, of course, under threat by humans.)

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 04 Sep 2009 #permalink

Cheers Darren (Comment 4) but I am a bit confused. You said 'At the moment, Megatapirus only contains T. augustus, however, so is redundant.' So to define a clade there must be multiple member species? You also say if the entity we traditionally call a genus is a clade (as it should be) Does that mean that all monospecific genera are somehow redundant and 'incorrect' in your opinion? Also if this were a dinosaur I would think that a major size difference and highly vaulted nasals and distinctive teeth would get it its own genus no problem. David thanks for you comments too (comment 8). I agree taxonomy isn't a science but in reality it is the primary way that most laypeople have any access to extinct fauna and they don't understand that it isn't a science let alone what phylogenetics is. This is exactly what I was moaning about. Science has to my eye failed miserably to explain what it is doing to the rest of humanity even though it has revolutionised classification and our understanding or evolutionary relationships. I think this is partly because scientists exist in their own research bubbles and there is a lack of overall guidance or direction concerning education around the consensus of results they find. That is perhaps one of the reasons science in general is so misrepresented in the press. Having said that I find TetZoology an excellent exemplar of what could be achieved.

By RStretton (not verified) on 04 Sep 2009 #permalink

Well, it's hardly relevant to this particular post, but I did just want to say a quick cheers for Mr. Naish for all the wonderful information, and it's easy accesability. As a highschool student, I hardly have a use for such information, but its always a pleasure to mull things over in my head, and clarify any errors in my somewhat limited understanding of the world. Bravo! 8D

By Streptopelia s… (not verified) on 04 Sep 2009 #permalink

I find the Pleistocene megafauna of temperate and tropical Asia particularly fascinating, partly because I live in this part of the world, and partly because very little has been mentioned about them in the popular literature.

Giant tapir aside, tropical Asia also once had giant pangolins and tortoises. I've read about how rhinoceros, giant panda and orangutan were once much more widespread. Not to mention that Asia was home to various species of Elephas and Stegodon, the sabertooths Megantereon and Homotherium, the hyaenids Pachycrocuta and Crocuta, the hippopotamus Hexaprotodon, bovids such as Bubalis and Epileptobos, plus the strange Celebochoerus, a pig that probably lived alongside babirusa and Sus, but is more closely allied to the bushpigs of Africa. There's also plenty of biogeographic mysteries; for example, why are banteng and leopard present in the Malay Peninsula and Java, but absent from Sumatra? Why are tapir and tiger absent from Borneo?

We don't seem to have many good sites; it does appear that much of what we know about Pleistocene megafauna in Asia comes from what has been discovered at a handful of sites in China, India, Java, Sulawesi, and Flores. It doesn't help that many fossil-bearing sites are probably underwater, having been submerged as Sundaland was swallowed up by the sea.

It would be wonderful to find out which species survived long enough to encounter modern humans, and whether any of them were hunted to extinction. It certainly does seem that megafaunal mass extinction is still very much ongoing across large areas of Asia.

Darren and readers of this blog interested in tapirs: ignoring the dubious new species of Tapirus put forward by van Roosmalen, there remains real scope for systematic revision of Recent tapirs. Tapirus indicus is quite different (in terms of genetics, anatomy, and ecology) from the Neotropical species of Tapirus. Some mammalian systematists already consider T. indicus a distinct genus, Acrocodia, a name that was published by Goldman in the first half of the 20th Century. The generic distinction of T. indicus has yet to receive wide and formal recognition by mammalogists and/or conservation organizations.

While less clear, it remains plausible that Tapirus bairdii belongs in its own genus: Tapirella. More comprehensive data on the molecular and morphological systematics of Neotropical tapirs is needed.

Lastly, noted mammalogist Phil Hershkovitz reported a record of "Tapirus terrestris" from Central America (Costa Rica, I think) in one of his papers published by the Smithsonian Institution (I don't have the reference on hand). This is intriguing given that Brazilian tapirs are supposedly limited to South America. Verification is needed in order to ascertain whether it is really an extralimital T. terrestris, an incorrectly identified/labelled T. bairdii, or something else. The voucher specimen is in the US National Museum of Natural History.

By Erich Fitzgerald (not verified) on 05 Sep 2009 #permalink

Does that mean that all monospecific genera are somehow redundant and 'incorrect' in your opinion?

Many people now (since 20 to 40 years ago depending on the discipline) think that monotypic taxa (families with one genus, genera with one species, and so on) should be lumped with their relatives whenever possible, simply to avoid redundancy. The codes of nomenclature don't care, however.

Science has to my eye failed miserably to explain what it is doing to the rest of humanity even though it has revolutionised classification and our understanding or evolutionary relationships. I think this is partly because scientists exist in their own research bubbles

I'd rather say it's because they're simply not paid to explain their work to the public. So they prefer to churn out another paper or three in the time it would take to write something popular.

That is perhaps one of the reasons science in general is so misrepresented in the press.

There's another: most journalists, even science journalists, don't understand the science they're reporting.

The idea behind the English-language ScienceBlogs is to have scientists talk to the public directly, without intermediaries that tend to get everything wrong. (I don't know about the Portuguese-language one. The German-language one does have several blogs by poorly knowledgeable journalist types, though it also features great blogs by scientists.)

Having said that I find TetZoology an excellent exemplar of what could be achieved.

Yes. Oh yes.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 05 Sep 2009 #permalink

Thanks for further comments. Erich: thanks for neat insights. There is some very exciting extant tapir news in the system (no it does not concern van Roosmalen's animal), I will share it when I can.

With regard to Richard's comments about subgenera and so on (comment 10), let me clarify. For there to be a nameable phylogenetic entity within a 'genus', it has to contain more than one taxon (it should also not create radical paraphyly, which Megatapirus would). So, what I'm saying is that any clade of sub-generic level can be named, hence 'subgenera' are ok. Are monotypic genera permissible? Of course, sorry if I implied that.

Thanks Darren gotcha I wouldn't advocate paraphyly. I agree David that scientists are not paid to explain their work to the public. It's such a shame that our world is ruled by money. I was about to suggest that we need some overarching science body to do that but maybe that's a bit orwellian!

By RStretton (not verified) on 05 Sep 2009 #permalink

Erich:

Tapirus indicus is quite different (in terms of genetics, anatomy, and ecology) from the Neotropical species of Tapirus.

Very interesting. Do you know of any recent molecular studies on the interrelationships of Tapiridae? Ashley et al. published a paper on this subject in 1996, but that's quite a while ago. Their analyses consistently found T. terrestris and T. pinchaque to be sister taxa, but they failed to resolve the affinities of the two other species (and thus the authors did not recommend elevating T. indicus or T. bairdii to full genera). And in what way(s) is the Malayan tapir ecologically different from the Neotropical species?

Reference:

Ashley, M.V., Norman, J.E. & Stross, L. 1996. Phylogenetic analysis of the perissodactylan family Tapiridae using mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase (COII) sequences. Journal of Mammalian Evolution 3, 315-326.

Apparently, a tapir is the most dangerous animal to keep at a zoo and are responsible for a lot of fatalities. The keepers NEVER go in with them. At the Toronto Zoo, there's a glass shield over the tapirs' moat to keep them from lunging at visitors.

I am, as I type, watching the zookeeper in question, post dismemberment, feed a wild (but radio-collared) tapir on an episode of "Raw Nature" on Animal Planet. Moving stuff. Okay so now they are peer pressuring a "reporter" to eat rhino feces. Anyway.

Also @ comment 18, "most dangerous?" Really? Surely captive elephants have injured/kill more people than tapirs...

Neil:

Also @ comment 18, "most dangerous?" Really? Surely captive elephants have injured/kill more people than tapirs...

I've been under the impression that many zookeepers fear the baboons and the mandrills the most.

I would have thought that the animals with the highest body counts (or at least injuries) would have been either the elephants, big cats or primates.

Prior to this recent discussion of tapirs, I had no idea tapirs could be so dangerous. Singapore's Night Safari has a stretch along the tram route where the visitors are actually taken through the Malayan tapir 'habitat', and we can see tapirs placidly feeding less than 2 metres away. We're reminded to keep our hands in the tram, and to refrain from reaching out and petting them, of course.

In 2006, some idiot at the Night Safari apparently took photographs with the the flash, and startled one of the Indian rhinos, which charged and knocked down one of the keepers who was inside the enclosure feeding it. Thankfully, she survived.

Obviously tapirs can be dangerous on occasion and should be respected, but I've mostly heard (from people in the zoo world) how friendly and affectionate they are. They love being scratched and will lie down on their sides if you start scratching them. I've often seen keepers go into tapir enclosures, at least on TV. Wasn't aware that captive animals had ever caused fatalities. Would be interested in more info... in fact, would love to do an article on 'most dangerous zoo animals'. I'm putting my money on chimps, elephants and big cats.

Darren:

Would be interested in more info... in fact, would love to do an article on 'most dangerous zoo animals'.

Write it and we'll read!

If you need references on that subject, here is a historical gem (kindly made available in PDF format by the New York Times) to start with. It's a newspaper article from 1909 by William Hornaday, who once upon a time was director of the Bronx Zoo.

I'm putting my money on chimps, elephants and big cats.

Chimps and elephants I agree on, but I wouldn't be so sure about the big cats. I'd suspect (I have no real data at hand, alas) that they actually cause relatively few accidents in zoos. In traditional zoos at least, big cats (and other large predators) are usually kept particularly well locked up and physically isolated from the public, and thus there are fewer opportunities for accidents to happen. Also, while almost* all human beings will understand that big cats are dangerous, it's not necessarily obvious for the average zoogoer that a cute herbivorous elephant or a funny monkey might, in reality, also be extremely dangerous.

* Emphasis on 'almost'; there is no limit to how mind-blowingly stupid things some people may do. For example, there was a case in a Swedish zoo in the early eighties where a man was driving with his car through the lion exhibit in the zoo's 'Safari Park'. At some point, he apparently thought that it would be a good idea to stop the car, step out of it, and go and pet the lion cubs. This is what he did, in any case. As for how it ended â can you say 'Darwin Award'?

My thinking on big cats is that a high body-count at one British zoo (famous for its 'hands-on' keeper-animal relationships) may well skew the results. I'll look into this and report at some stage. Some surprising deaths are on record: giant otters killed a keeper in Brazil, and I think a Greater kudu killed someone once.

Re stupid behavior on the part og humans around dangerous animals: there's the instance of parents at Yellowstone who slathered honey on their baby's face and held the baby out the car window to a bear, hoping to get a "cute" picture of a bear licking the baby. (Thankfully it ended well, but still...)

By William Miller (not verified) on 09 Sep 2009 #permalink

If Jared Diamond is to be believed, zebras cause "more injuries to American zookeepers each year than any other animal"

Windy:

If Jared Diamond is to be believed, zebras cause "more injuries to American zookeepers each year than any other animal"

While that may or may not be true, it should be kept in mind that 'causing the most injuries' and 'causing the most fatalities' are two different things.

More generally; if you want to find a meaningful answer to the question of which zoo animal is the most dangerous, it's necessary to define what, exactly, you mean by 'dangerous'. But you also need many other data, such as information on the relative abundance of different species in captivity. To take a simple, hypothetical example: if the raw statistics show that Asian elephants cause more accidents in zoos than African elephants do, you can't from that information alone conclude that Elephas is more dangerous than Loxodonta. Rather, that might only reflect the fact that Asian elephants are more common in zoos than African elephants are.

From what I've read, captive deer dish out an surprising number of injuries, possibly because of how innocuous they look...

By Tiktaalik (not verified) on 11 Sep 2009 #permalink

I've seen a tapir herd in a zoo in Lima, Peru. They are friendly with humans even when they are "babysitting".
In Peru's Manu National Park and Biosphere Reserve it's even known that Matsiguenga children (one of the ethnic groups from the Amazon) keep tapirs as pets.

It's those killer rabbits. Gotta watch for those!

It is again and again amazing to see what kind of animals can cause serious or even fatal injuries to humans. I think one of the most unexpected cases of a lethal animal attack was this anteater which killed a zookeeper some years ago. On a list with most killed people or very serious injuries in zoos bears would probably also be on the upper places. They are also among those animals which caused comparably many injuries in visitors, again mainly due to complete stupidity, like those guy in China which wanted to hug a big male giant panda. Many people highly incorrectly estimate bears because they look so "cute". I think the number of most killed people is in elephants especially high because many people, especially zoo keepers were killed by accident, not as a result of a true attack. But if you look at the number of cases in which big cats attacked people in zoos and safari parks, it is really very high. Just yesterday I also read in a book from the 70ies about a case in which an orang utan did bite off two fingers of a zoo keeper. Not really that spektakular, but it shows that apes are really not always friendly.
BTW, wasn´t there also a big prehistoric species of Tapir from America?

Re zoo fatalities: a lecturer at Vet College began his first lecture with: "All male animals are dangerous!"
Many years ago I saw a keeper sweeping up in a Brazilian Tapir enclosure at Melbourne Zoo. The male "Schnozzle" came up to the keeper, who used the broom-head to pull down a branch to where Schnozzle could reach it. The trunk was wrapped round a bundle of leaves which were then pulled into the mouth and eaten. Of course all reachable leaves had been eaten already.
On another occasion, I saw a pair of Tapirs courting - remarkably horse-like, standing shoulder to shoulder caressing each others' backs and withers with trunks and lips. When the male tried to mount her, the female kicked her heels up with a squeal and ran off - not very far - and the mutual nibbling was resumed. What a shame my kids then dragged me off to see the reptiles.