23.4a – The New World Monkeys

Out with the old, in with the new. (Common squirrel monkey photo by Geoff Gallice)

A whole new world! A dazzling place you’ve never been! Or so goes the song, but if you’ve ever been to the Americas, North or South, you actually have been there.

Here at last we come to the sorts of animals we imagine when we think of primates — the monkeys. And let me tell you, there are a lot of different monkeys out there. Most of the warm places in the world are crammed full of them. But one type of monkey is not quite like another. Scientists who work on these sorts of things have divided monkeys into two major groups — the old world monkeys, those that evolved in Africa and Asia; and the new world monkeys, those that evolved in central and South America.

The two groups split apart about 40 million years ago, but the curious thing is how that came to happen. After all, 40 million years ago there was no known connection between South America and Africa or Asia. We know that monkeys originally developed in the old world, so how did they come to be in the new?

The obvious thought is that they crossed the land bridge that once existed between Russia and Alaska, the same way humans eventually did, but we don’t think that’s what happened. There is absolutely zero fossil evidence to suggest that monkeys ever moved through North America or Siberia. And besides, North and South America were not yet connected, and wouldn’t be for tens of millions of years, so if monkeys had come through North America they would have been forced to stay there for a long time. As far as we know, that’s not what happened.

But there’s another way they could have made the journey. We have no way to know for certain, but the idea is that those ancient monkey pioneers that made the trip to South America to become a new type of monkey actually came from Africa, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

Now the Atlantic Ocean is very big, so I understand if you’re skeptical. It’s not as though the monkeys of 40 million years ago could build boats. But remember that South America and Africa are moving apart from one another, which means that the Atlantic was quite a bit smaller back then. It was still, however, a very formidable stretch of ocean, on the order of a thousand miles wide, if not wider.

The current theory goes that there existed at that time a number of islands between Africa and South America, stretching across that growing ocean. This is certainly possible, and the ocean levels of the world were a bit lower back then as well, so there may have been islands. The monkeys may have more or less accidentally crossed them over the course of many thousands of years, populations swept westward on floating debris and material with the currents (which were also different then than they are today).

So it came to be that monkeys, those adaptable, adorable, terrible creatures, set foot on a brave new world and took to the great jungles of South and central America. But what makes a new world monkey special, besides its geographic location?

Is it the fabulous whiskers? (Emperor tamarin photo by Brocken Inaglory)

New world monkeys are typically a little smaller than their old world counterparts, but the nose is where it’s at. Just as we split wet-nosed primates apart form dry-nosed primates, monkeys too are divided by what’s around their nostrils. New world monkeys have flatter, more narrow noses than the old world variety, and their nostrils face to the side instead of down or straight ahead. The new world monkeys also have prehensile, grasping tails, while the old world monkeys are stuck with tails that can’t grasp a thing. To balance this out, most new world monkeys do not have opposable thumbs, either, while the old world monkeys — and by common evolutionary ancestry, us — all have that useful trait.

There are five families in the new world monkey group, and we will examine each of them in their turn. Among them we will find monkeys that swing, monkeys that howl, and the smallest monkey in the world. The new world monkeys are unconscionably addicted to trees, and they show it in some of their names. We’ll have squirrel monkeys, owl monkeys, spider monkeys, and more. But enough with the introduction. It’s time to monkey around.

23 – The Book of Primates

Time to monkey around. (Chimpanzee photo by Delphine Bruyere)

The order Primates (pronounced, oddly enough, pry-MAY-teez when you are talking about the order, and PRY-mayts when talking about individual members) is one of the largest, most diversified, and most successful orders in the mammal group. They have been around since the fall of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and are the kings and queens of mammalian life in the trees.

But before we begin, there is one thing we should get out of the way — yes, humans are primates. However any person wishes to justify it is, personally, fine by me, whether we evolved from more older primate forms or whether God influenced our evolution or whether God sprang us from the ether fully formed with traits that just happen to fit us perfectly into the primate category. That’s up to you, and as business goes it’s none of mine. But the fact of it is essentially unavoidable. We are primates.

There are some who believe that humans should not be placed on the tree of animal life, that we exist beyond it, but we are not some higher form of life. We emerged from the natural processes of the world like everything else. We are intelligent, we are industrious, and we have conquered the Earth’s many habitats like no animal before us has ever done. We have developed language, science, philosophy, and art. We are an amazing, wonderful species when we are at our best. Being a primate diminishes us not at all. Whether we are God’s chosen children or whether we have simply evolved and developed in such a manner as to rise for the most part above our animal instincts, we are still primates. This is where we fit. These creatures are our distant cousins.

That said, I will not be including an entry specifically about humans. The tale of our evolution, mostly known to us but still containing mysteries, is not meant for this record, nor is the long story of our history from our humble African roots to our establishment of civilization to our modern day intelligent adaptation to all the continents of Earth. I may one day tell that story, but the Book of Beasts is for our wild counterparts, and humans are a rather domesticated lot. Besides, we already get our share of mentions when it comes to our actions toward the animals of the world.

The wild primates used to be divided by their dominant features. They were the prosimians, which had features closer to older, more primitive primates, and the simians, which developed later. But today scientists, who do love to muck about with the order of things, instead classify primates by two different features. They are the curly-nosed primates and the dry-nosed primates. Many scientists still prefer the older grouping, which complicates things. Put it out of your mind, gentle reader, and think of monkeys.

Thinking of lemurs is also acceptable. (Red ruffed lemur photo by Hans Hillwaert)

Primates range from very small (the one-ounce Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur) to very large (the 450-pound eastern lowland gorilla), with all sorts of shapes, details, and behaviors in between, but there are a few things they all have in common.

With the exception of humans, as noted above, primates tend to live in tropical or sub-tropical regions where thick forests flourish. They are for the most part tree specialists, you see, and the more trees are around the happier a primate is.

While many animals and even some mammals have evolved to take advantage of trees, primates have truly taken trees to heart. Grasping hands, color vision, developed brains, the ability to walk on two legs, creative thinking — all of these things that helped humans become what we are today initially developed because they are great for living in trees.

Primates all have flexible shoulder joints that let them move their upper arms in many directions. Think of a dog or a cat — they can’t move their shoulders like we can because they did not evolve to move in trees, where such shoulder joints are highly advantageous.

All primates have five fingers and five toes, and have opposable thumbs used for grasping and manipulating objects. These features allow primates to easily climb and swing from branches, and they helped humans become the crafty, technological wizards we are. All primates also have sensitive toes and fingers to help with climbing and balance in the trees, whereas most other mammals have their toes and fingers protected somehow.

Primates have forward-facing eyes that allow accurate depth perception, critical for jumping through trees and also, coincidentally, for driving cars. This is why we don’t let horses drive the school bus. As a bonus, primates can (almost) all see in color.

All primates also tend to give birth to only one young at a time in most cases. As complex mammals, primates require a lot of attention from their mothers, and take longer to fully develop than most mammals, so it is better to have one offspring at a time. Primates are mostly social creatures as well, and typically have dominance hierarchies where one member of each group, typically the strongest, gets to make and enforce the rules over others. Sound familiar?

Last but certainly not least, all primates have large brains relative to their body sizes. A big brain allows for quick, easy processing of all the sensory information involved with swinging through branches high above the ground. This is why the feature developed, but as a side effect all primates are pretty smart cookies as far as animals go, and humans, of course, became the smartest cookies of all — though we did not develop as a distinct species until long after our ancient ancestors came down out of the trees and decided to give the ground a try. Fortunately for them it turned out that having that big brain, those grasping hands that could make tools, and that social cooperation, all of which developed in the trees, let them succeed on the ground as well.

There are a lot of different primates to cover, hundreds of them, so we will lump them together and be brief where we can. But there is a lot to know about these diverse and clever creatures, so let’s begin.

“About time, good fellow.” (Agile gibbon photo by Julie Langford)

22.2a – The Anteater

A nose for nummies. (Giant anteater photo by Malene Thyssen)

The South American grasslands. Night. Vast wild fields roll away in every direction, scattered with countless tall termite mounds, their walls so thickly-built and cemented together that one might almost mistake them for rocks. And shambling out of the darkness across the fields — a strange and shaggy creature that seems almost to have no head, only a neck that gets longer and narrower until it reaches a blunt point. A giant anteater.

The animal walks on its knuckles, but when it stops before the nearest termite mound it unfurls massive, powerful claws like those of a fearsome predator. And it is a fearsome predator, in its way. With great gouges in the hard walls, the giant anteater rips chunks from the earth and exposes the many tunnels of the busy insects. Protected by its shaggy hair from any bite or sting an insect might offer, the creature reveals that what seemed to be its too-long neck is actually simply its head — a head that is narrower than the neck it sits on. With such a long and narrow snout it can shove its mouth directly into the termite tunnels.

Its tongue, longer than its head and attached to its sternum deep in its chest, flickers in and out almost faster than the eye can see, up to two-and-a-half times per second, shooting down into the termites’ home and through its many tunnels. The tongue is a marvel, not only fabulously long but covered in thousands of tiny hooks and coated with a sticky saliva, which combine to snatch up any termites it encounters. The insects it swallows are pulled alive into the anteater’s stomach where hard plates and any dirt or sand accidentally swallowed help to crush and grind the insects into a digestible and nutritious paste.

The termites are no fools, and within a minute they have begun to organize themselves to attack the giant invader, but the anteater is careful. By the time that minute has passed it has gobbled up as many termites as it can and then stops. There are many termites left, but this particular mound is now potentially dangerous. But there are always more mounds, and the creature will visit as many as 200 different termite nests this night before it has eaten enough to see it through the day, which it will spend sleeping in the shade and lowering its body temperature to require less energy.

The giant anteater is the most recognizable of the anteaters, which are closely related to sloths even though they look almost completely different. There were once many different types of anteaters, but competition from species migrating south from North America in the past three million years has reduced the anteater to a mere four species found in central and South America. The giant anteater is the largest, but is also the only one that lives its entire life on the ground.

Consider the silky anteater. The most distant cousin in the anteater family, it is the size of a mere house cat, if not smaller, and can be found in dense jungles instead of grasslands. The silky anteater lives its entire life in the trees, just like a sloth, and it has a prehensile tail to help it climb around in search of insects. But despite its much different appearance and lifestyle, it still employs the same feeding strategy, using a long tongue to lap up insects for nutrition. It sleeps by rolling itself into a ball in a tree, often in such a way that it looks like a seed pod and will thus be left alone.

The littlest anteater, here refusing to show off its powers of camouflage. (Silky anteater photo by Eveha)

Between these two extremes are the tamanduas, the northern tamandua and the southern tamandua to be precise. They are medium-sized anteaters that also have prehensile tails, but they split their time between the ground and the trees. They eat ants and termites with the best of them, but aren’t picky about where to find them.

Fact: ants taste better when eaten upside-down. (Northern Tamandua photo by Dirk van der Made)

Anteaters are not gentle creatures. They aren’t going to storm your home and break down your walls in search of insects, but if you threaten an anteater it will rear up on its hind legs like a bear and will show you exactly how powerful its enormous claws are. Jaguars and large eagles are typically the only animals tough enough to tackle anteaters. They aren’t very nice with one another either. Anteaters are all solitary creatures, and will fight one another if there is a question of territorial rights. When in a scrum, one anteater might even try to climb on top of the other’s back to get an advantage with those claws. Anteaters mean business.

Bonus fact — anteaters are also known as ant bears, though they aren’t related to bears at all, and the scientific name for the anteater group, Vermilingua, means “worm tongue”.

22.1b – The Ground Sloth

Lazy bones? (Photo by Postdiff)

The ground sloths are all gone — so far as we know, they went extinct in the mainland Americas more than ten thousand years ago, and only survived on islands until four thousand years ago, when the last was lost. Under normal circumstances they would not find a place in this blog, for they are no longer a part of the living animal kingdom. But the ground sloths are too fun to pass up, and they also provide an interesting contrast with our living modern day sloths. Plus, they might not be as entirely extinct as we believe.

The ground sloths were most closely related to the modern day two-toed sloth, but they were nothing alike. While the sloths that survived into the present were small tree-dwelling creatures, the ground sloths were terrestrial behemoths.

Ground sloths evolved in South America with the other sloths, and there were five different types of them, each as evolutionarily distinct as dogs are from bears. Even before North and South America joined forces three million years ago, ground sloths made their way north by swimming from island to island in the ocean between the two. When the two continents joined even more ground sloths followed, and eventually they could be found from the southern tip of South America all the way to Alaska.

There were some small ground sloths, but the ones we know best were enormous. Some of them grew larger than modern day elephants, all while maintaining a slothy shape. They had long claws, likely used for stripping the bark from trees, and they could stand on their hind legs to reach tall branches. The ground sloths tromped across the land in search of food while their lazy tree-dwelling cousins stayed at home and very slowly evolved themselves into motionless perfection.

The coming of humans to the continent began the downfall of the giant sloths. They were too big, too slow, and over thousands of years we killed them all, polishing the last ones off shortly after the end of the last ice age. Some survived on islands for several thousand more years, but the youngest confirmed ground sloth we know about died around 2000 BC on Cuba.

But the European explorers of North America didn’t know that. When skeletons of enormous sloths were unearthed, explorers pushing west into the continent’s interior hoped that they might find living giant sloths. As late as the Lewis and Clark expeditions, Thomas Jefferson asked the explorers to keep an eye out for ground sloths, which he believed might still be out there.

And some of the ground sloths likely did survive longer than any provable theory supposes. Preserved ground sloth hide was found in a cave in Patagonia, a remote and mountainous region in the extreme south of South America, by a rancher in the late 1800s, which was dated to about 5000 years ago. This would place the creature on mainland South America thousands of years after they were supposed to have gone extinct.

Indeed, some believe the creatures may have survived on small islands in the Caribbean until as late as 1550 AD. But could the ground sloth still be alive somewhere?

The answer is probably no. But not definitely no. Large parts of South America remain little explored or studied, and native stories in parts of the Amazon and Patagonia tell of creatures resembling ground sloths that some native groups tell us still survive today in the deepest and most remote corners of the continent. A hunting expedition in Patagonia in 1895 reported a close encounter with a large beast much like a ground sloth, with a hide so thick that their bullets were unable to kill it before it retreated.

If there are any still out there, we haven’t found them. They exist only as cryptids, a class of animals that we cannot prove exist today. While some cryptids are likely the result of over-active imaginations or outright fabrication, occasionally a cryptid proves to be a real animal. The okapi was once believed not to exist, and the remarkable coelacanth fish was thought to have been extinct for millions of years before a living specimen was found off the coast of South Africa in 1938.

In today’s world the survival of a beast such as the ground sloth is highly unlikely — but the mystery remains, and a mystery is always delightful.

22.1a – The Sloth

Getting the hang of it. (Photo by Masteraah)

Ah, the sloth. Has any animal’s name ever been so efficiently descriptive, so elegantly appropriate? It’s all right there, one word, five letters — sloth.

Sloths are curious creatures found in the jungles of central and South America. The word “sloth” existed before the scientific community knew about them, a word that meant slow, lazy, lagabout, mud-for-bones, or any number of terms both real and perhaps imagined by the author that come round to the same concept — just plain doesn’t do much. Like a teenager on summer vacation, the sloth fits this term perfectly, so perfectly that we slapped the word right on it as a name.

These creatures are highly distinctive. They are shaped somewhat like large monkeys with their long arms and flat faces, but they are not in any measurable way related to primates. As you know, they are most closely related to anteaters. It’s only that long arms and a generally monkey-like body shape are best suited for climbing in trees, and that’s what sloths do, so this is what they evolved to look like.

Sloths in fact spend almost their entire lives in trees, because that’s where they are safest from predators. But there are many predators in South America that can also climb trees, from the jaguar to large snakes, so what’s this all about?

The key to life as a sloth is in the name. Sloths are known for moving very, very, extremely, quite rather incredibly very slowly. But it’s not laziness. The slowness of a sloth is in fact its greatest defense against predators.

“Don’t mess with me. I’m warning you, if you do, I will sit here. I will sit here so hard, you won’t even know what didn’t hit you.” (Photo by Stefan Laube)

If that makes no sense to you, you’re just not thinking like a sloth. When you don’t move, you don’t attract attention, and when you don’t attract attention, predators don’t try to eat you.

With this in mind, sloths have taken the fine art of not moving to new levels. They spend about ten hours a day sleeping, and the rest is spent hanging upside-down from branches and either not moving or very, very slowly reaching out for leaves to eat. A sloth will only carefully move around in a tree to find new food, or for a bathroom break. When a sloth needs to do its business, it doesn’t simply squat and let it go off the side of a branch. No, the sloth is a more refined creature. About once a week a sloth will very slowly climb down to the ground and relieve itself, then very slowly climb back up.

In fact, scientists have wondered why they do this, because it’s easier to just go from the tree and let it drop, not to mention safer. We don’t really know for certain. Some think it is how sloths find each other for breeding purposes; others think the sloth is worried that going from the tree will make too much noise and attract a predator; still others think the sloth is trying to nourish the tree by burying its excrement near the trunk, thereby helping its own food supply. Or maybe they’re just really fussy. Who knows?

The best part of all this is that it means not only that the sloth digests its food very slowly, but that it stores its excrement inside its own body until it’s ready to do its business. If you kill a sloth close to its bathroom day, there’s a good chance that up to one-third of its body weight will be feces and urine that it was waiting to get rid of. So have fun with that.

This lifestyle serves the sloth very well. For one thing, when you don’t move much you don’t use energy, which means you need to eat less, which means you need to move less. It’s a very happy cycle. For another, the sloth is perfectly adapted for hanging upside down in trees. It is the only mammal with hair that grows toward the body instead of away from it. Look at your arm — the hairs all grow out toward the hand. Look at a dog’s leg — the hairs grow down toward the feet. Not so for the sloth. Its hairs grow the opposite direction, back toward the body’s core, because that way it will still protect against rain when the sloth is hanging upside-down, which it nearly always is.

In addition, sloths have long, curved claws that are not for digging or fighting — though they will take a swipe at you if you threaten it — but for hanging. The claws allow the sloth to hang without any effort, no use of muscle at all. They just dig the claws in, let themselves relax, and hang. This is so effective that even human poachers don’t bother sloths as much as they otherwise might. If you shoot a sloth while it’s hanging, it will simply keep hanging even when it’s dead, held up by its claws, and the poacher would have to climb up and get it. It’s the ultimate post-death screw-you.

Even a sloth that dies a natural death, say from old age, can sometimes remain hanging. They give birth while hanging upside-down, they eat upside-down, they sleep upside-down. To a sloth, the world looks crazy and backward when they stand up straight.

You might not expect it, but sloths can swim. However with all this talk of how slow they are, you might be wondering, really, how slow are they? A sloth in extreme danger of its life will turn up the volume and dash about at an incredible 13 feet per minute. Yes, per minute. Try moving that slowly across your living room without going insane. But remember, that’s only the speed of a really terrified sloth. Normally they only move half that fast at best, and usually even slower.

Two hours later, it finished this bite. (Photo by Fruitwerks)

There’s even a bit more to a sloth’s defense system than sheer slowness, though. They also have camouflage, and it’s about the grossest camouflage you can think of.

Each sloth is essentially its own slow-moving ecosystem. Their hair is host to a number of bacterial colonies that just love sloths, love them so much that a sloth is the only place they will grow, and each baby sloth gets its own bacterial colony from its mother. The bacteria go nuts and cover the sloth’s hair and skin with patches of colour that help the animal blend in with the branches. In exchange for making it harder to see, the sloth lets the bacteria live on its body forever. The bacteria also tends to attract insects, and so you might also find plenty of happy bugs snuggled up with the sloth. They all get along famously, but for the love of God don’t try to pet one.

There are two basic types of sloths alive today, the two-toed sloths and the three-toed sloths. Despite their similar appearance in all things not toe-related, these two types are not very closely related at all.

All sloths have three toes on the back feet, but the two-toed sloths have only two toes on the front feet. These two types of sloths have been evolutionarily separate for more than 35 million years, which is a very long time for two things to be apart and yet still look so similar. The two-toed sloths are much more closely related to the extinct giant ground sloths than to their three-toed distant cousins.

We don’t even actually know what three-toed sloths are related to, or how they came to be. Their line on the tree of evolution is drawn in the shape of a question mark. But it is believed that the two types of sloth evolved independently from ground-dwelling sloths, and that it is sheer coincidence and convergent evolution that they look and behave so much alike. They even both do the inexplicable bathroom thing.

There is, however, one other major difference between the two types of sloth, and it’s a difference that sets each of them apart from all the other mammals as well. For whatever reason, almost every single mammal has seven neck bones, known as cervical vertebrae. You have seven, I have seven, your cat has seven, your hamster has seven, the elephant that hopefully didn’t just step on your hamster has seven, even the long-necked giraffes and the no-neck whales have seven.

But sloths? Sloths said no, no way, that won’t do, and they said it in opposite directions. The two-toed sloths have six neck bones; the three-toed sloths have nine. Why? No one knows. It’s preposterous and mysterious. They don’t need more or fewer neck bones. They’re both practically the same animal, why did they go different directions in terms of more or fewer? What purpose does it serve? Are they just trolling scientists?

We do actually have some idea how this happened, even if the result serves very little purpose. With nine neck bones the three-toed sloth has a more flexible neck than other creatures, but it doesn’t need it; nor does the two-toed sloth needs its more rigid neck. But it comes down to genes.

It turns out that the reason every other type of mammal has seven neck bones, no matter how big or small its neck gets, is that the gene that controls how many neck bones we have is the same gene that helps determine how our nervous systems and our cells grow. If that gene were to change our number of neck bones, there’s a good chance that it would also give us brain problems and cancer, which would keep us (or any other mammal) from passing its different-number-of-neck-bones gene along to any offspring.

So how did the sloth get away with it? It is useful to consider that one other type of mammal also pulled off this trick, and that’s the manatee. We haven’t looked at them yet, but they are slow animals as well, and have six neck bones. The very slow metabolisms of the manatee and the sloth may actually make them resistant to cancer and DNA damage, which would mean that when evolution gave their neck bones a slip, they survived the change and even though it didn’t necessarily confer any specific advantage or disadvantage, they passed it on to their kids with a shrug. A very slow shrug.

Sloths. So weird.

Sloth distribution.

22 – The Book of Pilosa

Where life took a turn to the strange. (Three-toed sloth photo by Christian Mehlführer)

The order Pilosa is one of the only orders in the mammal world to have a distinctly South American flavour — it evolved entirely on that continent, and that is still the only place you will find one in the wild.

They are split into two main types of animal — the four living species of anteaters, and the six living species of sloths. There used to be a lot more of them, but half the families in the order went extinct. The ones that died off were the ground sloths, large creatures that kicked the bucket about 11,000 years ago (and kicked it very slowly, one presumes). Some ground sloths survived until as recently as 2700 BC on small islands, and it has been proposed that some few stragglers may have lasted as long as 1550 AD, but so far as we know they have all now been lost. Why did they die out, you ask? Well, they started dying around the time humans came to the Americas from Asia, and that was probably not a coincidence. There are no early humans who would have been able to resist such big, slow meals.

Those that remain are fantastic enough for anyone’s liking. The word “anteater” is applied to a lot of different and unrelated creatures that have evolved digging claws and a long tongue for catching ants and termites, but the true anteaters are here in Pilosa. They are wonderful furry creatures that appear more alien to us than almost any other mammal, possibly because they evolved in such isolation from many of the other mammal groups.

That’s weird, right? It’s not just me? (Giant anteater photo by Dave Pape)

The other half of the order, the sloths, are no less magnificent and also very furry and alien-seeming. Infamous for their slow motion, the ones we have left are much smaller than the sloths that once roamed South America. Living sloths are split between the two-toed and the three-toed varieties, but as we shall see when we look at them, these two types are not as close as they first appear.

There is not a lot in common between the two sides of Pilosa. They are both products of different evolutionary paths, and the order has been around for 60 million years. What similarities do exist, such as the large claws most of them have, or the fact that they don’t have front teeth, are coincidental. But they’re both strange, and they’re both wonderful, so let’s dive in and take a look at both sides in the upcoming articles.

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.