23.2a – The Slow Loris

Slow and nervous — a toxic combination. (Sunda slow loris photo by David Haring)

In the leafy, tropical forests of southeast Asia, you may happen upon a slow loris — but you would probably never know it.

The slow loris is part of a group known as the lorisids. The ten species of lorisids live in southeast Asia and central Africa, and they include the slender loris, the potto, and the angwantibo. In general they are mid- to small-sized primates with large eyes and very short tails, if they have any tail at all.

But the slow loris is the most interesting of the lot, for one very obvious reason. It is the only type of primate in the world that is venomous.

This trait is extremely rare among mammals. The slow loris does not produce toxins directly in its mouth, but has a rather ingenious system in place. It produces a compound from a gland on its arm, and when it licks this gland, the compound mixes with its saliva to form a toxin inside the mouth. That sounds somewhat foolish and dangerous, but the toxin doesn’t harm the loris — it only harms things the loris bites.

But a slow loris is not an aggressive creature; its bite is used only in self-defense. The animal also licks the toxin into the fur of its young, so that predators will be less likely to look upon a slow loris as a tasty snack.

These precautions are important because of how the slow loris moves — as you might have guessed from the name, it moves very slowly. If you are fortunate enough to spot a slow loris in the jungle, chances are very good that it will be creeping along at a snail’s pace, or not moving at all. It has strong hands that can clamp onto a branch so tightly that it takes a serious effort to make them let go, so they have no problem just hanging around and not moving at all, sloth-like.

But what we didn’t understand about this is that the slow loris is only slow when we’re watching it. This is an interesting effect in science — the notion that a thing might change simply because it is being observed, which in turn means that any conclusions we draw from our observations may be false.

The thing is, the slow loris, and indeed all of the lorisids, move slowly when they feel there might be danger nearby, and in their eyes anything that moves is a potential danger. In their dense, leafy homes, moving slowly helps them blend in and avoid being spotted and eaten.

But put a loris in an environment where it feels safe, such as darkness, and it will move about normally, yet it wasn’t until we had the proper technology that we understood that. So we named it the slow loris, and the name has stuck. However, there is still one difference between a loris’s normal movement and what you would expect from a primate — the slow loris does not jump. At all. It has no future in basketball.

Slow loris species are either vulnerable or endangered, for two reasons. One is a reason that threatens many species in southeast Asia, namely habitat destruction from deforestation to clear land for human use or consumption. The second reason is the wildlife trade. Slow lorises are popular as exotic pets, but this is very bad for the species. In order for a slow loris to become a human pet, its teeth are usually removed so that it cannot inflict its toxic bite (which is painful but not fatal to humans). Many of these animals eventually die from infection or malnutrition after having their teeth removed.

A baby slow loris has its teeth removed with nail clippers before it becomes a pet. Yes, it’s just as bad as it looks. (Photo by International Animal Rescue)

People like slow lorises so much because they are docile, agreeable pets, but you must remember — the slow loris acts slow and docile only when it is feeling threatened. The cuter it looks, the more it fears for its life. Life as a pet is not good for a slow loris, but people all over the world own them. Since 2007 it has been completely illegal in every country in the world to import a slow loris, but exotic pet traders still find ways to smuggle them into other countries and sell them, often to people who don’t know that they are illegal.

To make a long story short, don’t ever buy a slow loris as a pet. Most die in captivity, and live unhappy existences up until they do, but so long as people are willing to pay for them because they are cute, there will be those who circumvent the law to take them from the wild and sell them.

Advertisements

23.1f – The Sportive Lemurs

Loner lemurs. (Sahamalaza sportive lemur photo by R. Hilgartner)

At long last we have scrambled across the entire island nation of Madagascar, we have scoured its corners and learned about the lemurs, that remarkable, cooperative, sometimes strange, often endangered branch of the primate group. Only one family of lemurs remains unaccounted for — the sportive lemurs.

While most of the lemurs we’ve seen so far have been generally kind, sportive lemurs do not like members of their own species and gender. They are nocturnal lemurs, about a foot in length with a tail that goes on for another foot, and they live alone. Males and females have their own territory, and these may overlap, but no male is allowed to overlap his territory with another male, and similarly no female is allowed to overlap her territory with another female. If this happens, whoever was there first will get very angry, rather violent, and there will be a fight.

Like many lemurs, sportive lemurs stick to the trees when they can, but when drawn to the ground they move about in hops, more like a kangaroo than an indriid. Sportive lemurs are on the whole not as active as the other lemurs. They rest and conserve energy during the day, and when they come out at night, though they are very good climbers and jumpers, they keep their activity rate to a reasonable level and don’t make a fuss. A sportive lemur would much rather pass by unnoticed if it can.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell a sportive lemur apart from a woolly lemur, or even a large dwarf lemur. The trick is in the ears. Sportive lemurs tend to have big ears. If you see a lemur with big round ears sticking out from its head, you’ve probably got a sportive lemur situation on your hands. Let the poor fellow pass on into the night in peace.

There is something of a funny trend in recent animal discoveries, and the sportive lemurs give me a chance to touch on it. Once upon a time animals were named almost exclusively for their physical characteristics. If a lemur has white feet, it becomes the white-footed sportive lemur. If it has small teeth, it becomes the small-toothed sportive lemur. That sort of thing. Other times the animal is named for its location in a given area — if it’s found to the north of that type of animal’s range, perhaps it might be named the northern sportive lemur, for example. This is all relatively straightforward.

As you get away from the better-known animals in a group, particularly in a group with a lot of different species, you start to find animals that are named after a person, often the person who discovered it, but sometimes as an homage to someone who did a lot of work with that type of animal. At times this leads to a straightforward name — there is Hubbard’s Sportive Lemur, for example, or Scott’s Sportive Lemur, even Otto’s Sportive Lemur. Other times it leads to names that have a bit more flourish to them — for example, Flaurete’s Sportive Lemur, or Randrianasolo’s Sportive Lemur.

And sometimes, once in a great while, they name a lemur after something that doesn’t even sound like it should belong in the realm of animal names. When a research team discovered a new type of lemur after twelve years of work, they decided to name the lemur after their sponsor, the Association Europeenne pour l’Etude et la Conservation des Lemuriens (The European Association for the Study and Conservation of Lemurs). And thus, AEECL’s sportive lemur was born. You are supposed to pronounce each letter separately, like an acronym. And yes, that is the animal’s official name. I am certain that the AEECL has done fantastic work with lemurs and deserves every accolade they can receive; it’s only that my sense of aesthetics wishes they could have found a better-sounding name for their lemur.

“Wait, my scientific name is Lepilemur aeeclis? You guys have got to be kidding me.” (AEECL’s sportive lemur photo by U. Thalmann)

23.1e – The Indriids

The lemurs of hip-hop. (Diademed Sifaka photo by Tom Junek)

In the mad, mad world of lemurs in Madagascar, we’ve looked at the tiny dwarf lemurs, the bizarre aye-aye, and the typical lemurids, but those aren’t all. There are even more types of lemurs sharing the treetops on this crowded island.

There are 19 different species of indriids, and we can roughly divide them into three types — the woolly lemur, the sifaka, and the indri. The basic thing that sets indriids apart from the other lemurs is that they are not very good at moving on the ground. An indriids hind legs are very much longer than their arms, and this means that they cannot move around on all fours, as the lemurids do.

To visualize their dilemma, try it yourself, for humans suffer the same problem. Try to move not on your hands and knees, but on your hands and feet. You will quickly see why indriids don’t really like to move around this way. But unfortunately for the indriids, they aren’t able to walk upright in the manner of humans either. What’s a poor indriid to do?

Well, for the most part they stick to the trees, where they are incredibly agile and can jump great distances with their long, powerful legs. But they don’t hesitate to use the ground when they have to. What they do is stand up tall on their hind legs, stick their arms in the air for balance, and hop.

The sifakas are the best at this, or at least the most interesting to watch. They take great, sideways leaps across the ground in order to cover distance as quickly as possible. I cannot embed videos on this blog, but if you would like to click on the following link it will open a new window in which you can see the sifaka doing its wonderful thing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f9ARvGS3mhk

The woolly lemurs are much like the sifakas, but the indri is the odd animal in the group — every family has at least one. The indri is one of the largest of all lemurs, measuring up to two and a half feet, not including its tail. The reason it’s not fair to include the tail is that the indri, well, does not really have one.

Every other type of lemur on the entire island has a magnificent tail, sometimes longer than the entire rest of its body. These tails are used for balance and sometimes for stink-fights, as we saw with the lemurids. But the indri has only a tiny knob of a tail, hardly even worthy of the name. Despite this balance handicap it still climbs and jumps around in the trees as well as anything, and still does the side-stepping hop-along movement on the ground.

No tail? No problem. (Indri photo by Erik Patel)

One interesting thing about the indri is that it is entirely monogamous. It is one of those rare species that mates for life; a mating pair will stay together and raise multiple generations of offspring — one at a time — until one of them dies, and will only then move on to seek a new partner.

Indris are very vocal, and different groups will “sing” to one another. Their songs can last several minutes at a time, and when one group is finished singing another group nearby may take up the tune. We aren’t entirely certain why they do it, but it may simply be a means of letting all the other indris know where they are. There doesn’t seem to be any one reason why they do it, however. Indris will sing after some loud noise has disturbed them, will sing to respond to other groups singing or even to other types of lemurs making noise, and sometimes will sing seemingly just because they want to. A group of indris might sing up to seven times a day, and their songs resemble in some ways those of humpback whales.

To hear what an indri’s song sounds like, give this link a gander: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4d3vFI5UpIc

In some ways the indri is one of the most advanced lemurs, and the natives of Madagascar treat it as a sacred animal. In local mythology, the indris and humans have close relationships. One myth tells the story of two brothers, long ago. One brother decided to leave the forest and cultivate the land, and he became the first human; the other brother stayed in the forest and the trees, and became the first indri. The myth says that the indris sing as a form of mourning for their long-lost brothers who left the forest.

And if that isn’t wonderful enough, the Malagasy people also believe that the indris worship the sun, much as a human would worship a god. There is a surprising amount of truth to this idea. Every morning when the sun rises, an indri will face it and sit cross-legged, back straight, palms in its lap or facing up, and watch the sun with eyes half-closed, the very image of a human in meditation. It is not believed by scientists that indris have enough social organization to actually be worshiping the sun, of course; it is most likely only a coincidental body posture and a desire to warm up in the morning. But it is wonderful all the same, and these strange, knob-tailed lemurs have a lot of surprisingly human-like features for being so far removed from us in the primate group.

Unfortunately, the indri is also endangered, highly threatened by habitat destruction. They do not survive in captivity, and have never been successfully bred, which means that without adequate protection this wonderful creature, and indeed many of the indriids, may someday soon leave our world forever. It is unfortunate that Madagascar combines at the same time such a rich diversity of species and such a lack of environmental protection, due to the material needs of a poverty-stricken society.

23.1d – The Lemurids

Life in lemur-land. (Ring-tailed lemur photo by Alex Dunkel)

We have met the tiny dwarf lemurs and the mysterious aye-aye, but they are not the only lemurs in the forests of Madagascar — not by a long shot. Even on such a small island, the lemurs have split into so many different species and types that it is a wonder they all get along and have not reduced their diversity through competition, with a smaller number of stronger lemur species coming out on top. Instead, lemurs have each found their own niche and area on the island, and none has dominated the others. However, when it comes to the popular conception of a lemur, the lemurid group is what most people think of.

Lemurids are generally one to two feet long, with the tail an extra length beyond that. They are more capable and willing to move about on the ground than the other lemurs we’ve discussed, even though their back legs are longer than their front legs, giving them a wobbly, hoppy sort of gait when they walk on all fours on land.

They are, as you might expect, much more at home and agile in the trees. With long tails for balance, grasping fingers, and strong vision, they can fly about through the branches and will regularly leap more than ten feet from one tree to the next.

The lemurids are more social than the other lemurs we’ve mentioned as well. They live in groups of up to thirty individual lemurs, and in some species they form long-lasting groups with stable hierarchies, like large families.

The most prominent member of the lemurid group is also the animal that most people think of when they imagine a lemur — it is the ring-tailed lemur. It is perhaps the best-known and most recognized lemur in the world, even though it only lives in one corner of Madagascar. The reason everyone loves the ring-tailed lemur is, of course, for its long, black-and-white striped tail, which is two feet long and is actually longer than the entire rest of its body.

Unlike the dwarf lemurs and the aye-aye, the ring-tailed lemur does its business during the day, not at night. It lives in large groups where the females have social dominance (which is true for most lemurs), and these lemurs love to do things together. They can be found huddling together for warmth or just for fun, and they like to group up to sunbathe, turning their white underbellies to the sky to soak up some rays.

Like a boss. (Photo by Keven Law)

Despite their relatively small brain, ring-tailed lemurs display some measures of intelligence. They are highly vocal and social, and can understand basic arithmetic and tool use. They don’t use tools in the wild, but they quickly pick up the knack when trained and are able to select tools based on how well they will do the job.

Though they are highly vocal and enjoy chattering at one another, ring-tailed lemurs use scents for a lot of their communication. The males in particular are covered with scent glands of various types, and they will not hesitate to stink you up with some sort of scent from almost any part of their body. They use these scents to mark territory, to maintain their group hierarchies, and for mating purposes.

The most wonderful use of scent among ring-tailed lemurs is stink fighting. For this, males will coat their tails with smelly liquid from their glands and will then wave their stinky tails at other males, often ones who are their rivals for mates. Boys will be boys, whatever the species. Males will also wave their smelly tails at females as a means of attraction, but the females usually respond by punching or biting the male, because who on earth really wants a stinky tail in their face?

And as a random closing fact about ring-tailed lemurs, the females have four nipples, but only two of them work. Why? Impossible to say.

Contrasted with the ring-tailed lemur is the common brown lemur, also a lemurid. This particular lemur lives in groups, but does not have hierarchies at all. The females are still dominant, but members can come and go from the groups as they please, and no one is really the boss. When there are disagreements and fights, both parties reconcile their differences afterward and are nice to one another again with no hard feelings.

“Right, mate. I’m sure you didn’t mean it.” (Common brown lemur photo by David Dennis)

Combined with the fact that so many different types of lemurs co-exist without trouble on a small island, sometimes it seems as if lemurs got the whole social thing right, and it’s humans who have somehow messed it up and gone off course.

And there are many other lemurs in the lemurid group as well, all being social, getting along with others, and having a happy time on their island except for the fact that many of them are endangered due to human activity. They range from the endangered but vain red ruffed lemur (you would spend a lot of time grooming yourself as well if you had such a luxurious coat of red hair), to the critically endangered black-and-white ruffed lemur who roar and shriek in groups that form a sort of synchronized chorus, to the small and funny-looking bamboo lemurs.

The greater bamboo lemur is one of the world’s most endangered primates. Once believed extinct, a new population was discovered in 1986, but there are believed to be only between 60 and 160 remaining. There is every chance that they will not survive, because they are not protected in their habitat, more of which is destroyed all the time. This is unrelated to the fact that they are one of the few male-dominant lemur species, but you have to admit, it looks suspicious.

23.1a – The Lemur

Wet-nosed in a world of their own. (Mongoose lemur photo by IParjan)

For much of its history the island of Madagascar has been shrouded in mystery. Separated from Africa 160 million years ago and from the northward-bound India 90 million years ago, it has been one of the largest isolated areas for evolution outside of Australia, and like that continent-sized country Madagascar is home to many types of creatures found nowhere else on Earth. We looked earlier at the fossa, the Malagasy carnivore that evolved to look like a cat, but the most distinctive animal found on the island is the lemur.

Lemurs branched off from the rest of the primates sometime shortly after the dinosaurs went extinct. In the period from about 65 millions years ago to 50 million years ago — we aren’t exactly sure when in that time frame — the ancestors of all modern lemurs crossed the 350 mile channel between Africa and Madagascar and started an entire new branch of the primate family tree.

How did they cross the channel, you ask? For a long time this was one of the many mysteries of science, because that’s a lot of ocean to cross and the currents go the wrong direction. But it’s recently been proven that because both Africa and Madagascar were further south when the migration happened, the currents back then were in fact going the other way. Thus it is very likely that the ancestral lemurs lived along the African coast and crossed on rafts of vegetation by accident in multiple incidents over millions of years, swept across the channel by the current. It would have been a 30 day crossing for the creatures, difficult but survivable.

When they arrived, singly and in bunches over millions of years, they found what would prove for a long time to be a primate paradise — an uninhabited, unspoiled, enormous rainforest island, a place of wet seasons and dry seasons, a place with few competitors and few predators. And the lemurs took full advantage.

In their tens of millions of years on the island, lemurs evolved into many different forms to take advantage of all the resources and habitats on the island. Some became very small, as small as 30 grams, while others became very large. The largest lemur ever known was Archaeoindris, a lemur that evolved into a shape and size similar to a gorilla, weighing up to 400 lbs. They evolved into all sorts of behaviors, eating habits, movement types, social groupings — the lemurs formed their own diverse range of species on the isolated island, because they had no competition and were not forced to focus on only a few types of living.

But lemurs did not evolve quite the same as the more modern simians such as the monkeys did. Lemurs share the common primate features discussed in the previous article, but they have smaller brains relative to their body sizes, making them generally less intelligent. Lemurs can be taught to use tools in captivity, but they do not do so in the wild.

Either that, or they’re trolling us. Hey, lemur on the right, I see you laughing back there! (Ring-tailed lemur photo by Chris Gin)

Lemurs also have hands that are poorer at grasping than the hands of more modern primates, and lemur tails are not prehensile. This means that lemurs are not so acrobatic in the trees, but they can still get around just fine, and some are almost as good at it as monkeys. In addition, lemurs have generally poor eyesight.

To make up for these downsides, lemurs evolved powerful noses for more than just sniffing. Their noses are constantly wet and can be used as a touch-based sensory organ that lets them smell scent markings left by other lemurs by touching their nose to the marking. Through this method lemurs communicate information about themselves — their territory, their individuality, their gender, etc — without having to see one another, which comes in handy in the dark. Most lemurs are nocturnal, but some come out in the morning and evening as well.

One other thing that all lemurs have in common is the toilet claw. Besides being an object with a great name, the toilet claw is a longer nail on the second finger that is used for scratching and grooming.

But back to Madagascar, where all the lemurs were forming their lemur kingdom in isolation, with no worries and no competition, free to evolve however they wanted to take advantage of the island’s many resources. They were the ghosts of the forest, emerging in the evening and throughout the night to run wild through the rainforests, and indeed that is how they got their name — the word “lemur” comes from a Roman mythological term for ghosts.

“… Boo.” (Red-bellied lemur photo by Rachel Kramer)

But about 1800 years ago, everything changed. That’s when humans not from Africa but from Borneo in Indonesia discovered the island and native tribes colonized it. They were later followed by people from Africa. Together they are today known as the Malagasy people, and with their coming everything changed for the lemurs.

The Malagasy burned and cleared large sections of the rainforest to make room for pastures and rice paddies. So thoroughly did the Malagasy colonize the island that the lemurs, once found everywhere, were soon relegated to only about ten percent of the island’s area. The larger lemurs, including the enormous Archaeoindris, were killed off — as far as we know 17 different species of lemur went extinct in the 1800 years after human arrival.

And that was without hunting. Though the early human activity greatly damaged the lemurs, the people did not hunt or eat them. Lemurs are the subject of a great number of taboos from the native people, and it is believed to be extremely bad luck to harm a lemur.

European scientists have known about lemurs since the 1700s, but almost everything we know about them comes from research that took place only in the past 30 years. We used to believe there were only 30 or so lemur species, but today we know there are nearly 100 different species. Some of the species look so similar that we can only tell them apart with genetic testing.

These hundred or so species of lemur are split up into five major categories, or families, though as always science has not settled on the exact truth of this classification arrangement. Most species today are endangered or threatened due to human activity, especially logging of the Madagascar rainforest.

In the following series of articles we will look at each of the five major lemur families and learn more about these diminutive, diminished former rulers of the isle of Madagascar.

Lemur distribution

21 – The Book of Pholidota

Off-the-scales awesome. (Photo by Dushy Ranetunge)

Throughout many of the forested and open tropical regions of the world, in Africa, India, China, and southeast Asia, you might catch a rustle of undergrowth or the scrape of claws in the night. This could be any number of things, but if you’re very lucky you might have found one of the eight living species in the order Pholidota, which means “scaly ones”.

These are the pangolins, a wonderful type of creature otherwise known as the scaly anteater. They are unique in the animal world as being the only mammal with hard keratin scales. These scales are rigid, tough to get through, and sharp around the edges, which when combined with the fact that the pangolin can roll itself into a ball makes it a tough nut to crack for any predator.

Pangolins have long scaled tails and claws for ripping apart termite nests or tree bark in the quest for tasty insects. Like other anteater-type animals (though the pangolin is not a true anteater), it has a long, flexible tongue for getting into tight spaces and pulling insects out. A pangolin’s tongue is typically more than a foot long, but is only 0.2 inches wide. To make matters even more interesting, pangolins don’t actually keep their tongues in their mouths when not using them — they actually keep their tongues sheathed all the way down their own throats and attached down near their stomachs. They don’t have any teeth, so they simply use their tongue to pull insects directly down into the digestive system.

Their claws are so long and so important for their livelihood that pangolins are hesitant to risk damaging them. When they walk about they actually curl their claws up against the pads of their feet and walk in an awkward manner on their knuckles. As you can imagine, this makes them far from the fastest animal around. But in addition to those marvelous defensive scales, a pangolin can also spray a foul-smelling acid like a skunk. The long and the short of it is that you can’t easily mess with a pangolin.

That hasn’t of course stopped humans from doing so. Pangolin numbers have decreased across most of their habitats due to deforestation and human hunting. Pangolins in Africa are often used for meat, but in Asia their scales are also in demand for use in that old species-killing standby, traditional Chinese medicine. Some pangolins are endangered, but there is still a black market trade for them. Studies of pangolins and their exact behaviour and populations in the wild are few due to their nocturnal nature.

The giant pangolin of western and central Africa is the largest of the eight species, weight up to 70 pounds with a body more than four feet long before you count the tail. But the best tail on any pangolin belongs to the tree pangolin, which lives in roughly the same areas as the giant pangolin.

The tree pangolin has a prehensile tail and does not rely exclusively on termite mounds for its meals. The tree pangolin, as the name implies, can climb a tree and hang from its tail to rip bark apart and get at the treats beneath. Using its tail for balance it can walk on two legs when it needs to, and there are even reports that it can stand on two legs, with its hind claws and tail holding on, while standing completely sideways on the side of a tree.

And this one almost got the job as stunt double for Tom Cruise in the first Mission: Impossible movie. (Photo by verdammelt)

Pangolins are solitary creatures by nature and most of them are quite good at swimming. They are very distant relatives of the cats and dogs in Carnivora, but took an entirely different evolutionary path down their own branch of the evolutionary tree. This surprised researchers when it was first learned, for it was long assumed that pangolins were more closely related to armadillos or sloths, but this is simply not the case. It is only a matter of insect-eating species often evolving, entirely on their own, into similar forms that are best suited to the task.

Pangolin distribution.

20.3a – The Tapir

The beast with the shotgun nose. (Photo by Sepht)

Imagine a thick and humid forest in South America, where vegetation grows thick and small things live in profusion. Even the dogs that migrated to this continent grew small so that they could easily move around. But suddenly, snuffling through the jungle comes something bigger, something much bigger. Six hundred pounds of something like a cross between a pig and a small elephant rushes through the trees with a crash, and you wonder why on earth you’ve never heard of this before.

The tapir (pronounced TAY-per) is one of the largest land animals in the world that the average North American has probably never heard of. If asked to list large land animals, people would name the elephant, the rhino, the hippo, the bear, the giraffe, the lion, the tiger, but who would remember the tapir? There are four species of tapir, two in South America and two in southeast Asia. They are part of the same order as rhinos and horses, but they look nothing so much like the largest, strangest pig you’ve ever seen.

A tapir is about seven feet long and three feet tall with splayed, padded feet, each toe having its own hoof, capable of walking on mud without sinking. But the strangest thing you’d notice about a tapir — the strangest thing you’ve already noticed about it from the picture above — is its snout.

The snout on a tapir is long and flexible. It’s nothing compared to an elephant’s, but it’s the start of a similar idea. The tapir can move its snout in all directions and use it to reach branches and plants that would otherwise be just slightly out of reach.

And it makes them look just a little like Alf, the ’80s sitcom space alien. That’s not just me, right? (Mountain tapir photo by Elissa Berver)

A tapir’s teeth are also worth mentioning. The cutting teeth are set way out at the front of the long head, while the chewing teeth are much further back, and the two sets are separated by a gap. When combined with the fact that the entire snout is boneless, this gives the tapir a uniquely strange-looking skull.

Tapirs can smell and hear very well, but they have poor eyesight. They can run quickly and like to move around in the water much like a hippo. They have thick skin and only the biggest, strongest predators pose much of a threat to them.

Unfortunately that’s once again where we come in. Due to hunting and habitat loss, all four species of tapir are considered either endangered or threatened.

You might wonder how such a big animal came to live in both South America and southeast Asia, which are after all very far apart. Originally tapirs lived across almost the entire northern hemisphere, including North America, Asia, and Europe. But the northern tapirs in the old world all died out by about 8000 BC, leaving only those in southeast Asia; and in the new world, the tapirs of North America migrated south when the two American continents joined together three million years ago.

Tapirs are nocturnal creatures for the most part, but you must be careful if you ever meet one in the jungle at night. A tapir will typically avoid people by running or jumping in nearby water, but when frightened they have on rare occasions been known to maul humans with their jaws. And telling your buddies that you lost your arm in the Great Tapir War is not as credible as it sounds.

Tapir distribution.