New Species of Dwarf Tapir Discovered in Amazon Rainforest

By Breanna Draxler | December 17, 2013 11:34 am
kobomani tapirs

This magical moment between a pair of Kobomani tapirs was caught on camera trap in the southwest Amazon. Photo courtesy of Fabrício R. Santos.

It may seem hard for a 250-pound animal to elude scientists, but a species of tapir managed to do just that for hundreds of years. Now details of the new, miniature tapir that lives in the Amazon rainforest are finally being brought to light.

Tapirs are elusive, friendly and mostly nocturnal. Since 1865, there have been four known species of tapir—one in Asia and three in Central and South America. This new find is number five.

The tapir species is new to science, but has been known to and hunted by tribes in the Amazon rainforests of Colombia and Brazil for millennia. Researchers tipped their hat to this fact in their selection of a species name, Tapirus kabomani, which means tapir in the local Paumari language.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Historically, scientists assumed the indigenous hunters were mistaken in their identification. As they describe in their paper [pdf] published in the Journal of Mammology,

It is noteworthy that the 1st known specimen collected for this species remained unidentified for almost 100 years although the collector, Theodore Roosevelt, remarked that this specimen ‘‘…was a bull, full grown but very much smaller than the animal I had killed. The hunters said that this was a distinct kind.’’ Roosevelt sent the specimen to the United States for analysis, but it was considered just a variation of T. terrestris, [the Brazilian tapir].

Weighing in at about 240 pounds, the Kabomani tapir is a third the size of its closest relative, the Brazilian tapir (which averages more than 700 pounds). The new tapir also sports darker hair, hence the locals’ nickname for it: “little black tapir.”

Kobomani tapir

Painting of the new tapir species. Painting courtesy of Fabrício R. Santos.

Seeking Tapir Specimens

According to a report from Mongabay.com, paleontologist Mario Cozzuol found the first evidence of the new species ten years ago while examining tapir skulls that didn’t fit the criteria of other local species. In the ten years since, researchers have been collecting DNA samples and skulls from local hunters and the Karitiana Indians.

Genetic research indicates that tapirs haven’t changed much since they first emerged 50 million years ago, and that the new species branched off from the other South American species some 300,000 years ago.

All species of tapir are currently threatened with extinction, and this new guy is likely no exception as overhunting and deforestation in the Amazon continue. And it begs the question: How many of the rainforest’s species will be lost before scientists even know they’re there?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
  • Daniel Bass

    It’s amazing how such a well known and “pretigious” magazine doesn’t can present an article with such a groundbreaking discovery (at least to me), but not even bother to properly spell the name of my country. Read well people, it’s ColOmbia with an O, not Columbia.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Breanna Draxler

      Thanks for pointing out the error, Daniel! I’ve made the change.

      • duguesclin

        You shouldn’t have made that change, because in english, the language the article is written in, the name is ColUmbia.

        Y lo dice un hispanohablante. Alguien, por tanto, nada sospechoso.

        The one who tells you so is spanish-speaking. It’s my language. I know the lot,

        • Angela M.

          Don’t be such an ignorant !!

          • Daniel Bass

            It is ColOmbia in English, duguesclin, I’m an English teacher and have spoken the language since I can remember. the Spelling Columbia, with a U, is for the British Columbia, and the District of Columbia. Thanks for your display on your lack of knowledge, la ignorancia es atrevida ;) .

        • Daniel Bass

          Such display of ignorance… but you know the saying, “La ignorancia es atrevida”. ;)

        • Lala

          The problem with that approach is that there a lot of places named Columbia in the U.S. Keeping it to its native spelling helps to differentiate it as the country, and not a city or town in a different country.

      • Daniel Bass

        Thanks for that. Sorry if I seemed rude, but it’s a mistake I find over and over again, to the point it starts to seem disrespectful. Cheers.

    • bertinanth764

      My Uncle Harrison just got a
      fantastic white Acura ILX Hybrid by working parttime off of a computer… read
      J­a­m­2­0­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Irene Brady

    On my world map, in English, it is Colombia.

  • Irene Brady

    And I’m totally delighted that we can still find new creatures this big! A little bit of humble pie.

  • bensabio

    Another editorial comment: those of us who appreciate the real meaning of the phrase, “begs the question” (and we are an endangered species, alas), do a lot of painful squirming when we see it debased, as it is here and so commonly these days, to mean “raises the question”. In fact, far from implying that a new question is raised, it means that the subject (or question) at hand has been evaded (or “begged”) by a response that isn’t useful, often because it simply uses circular reasoning that gets nowhere. But like I said, this elegant and subtle rhetorical phrase has almost gone the way of the passenger pigeon, and with it the delivery of yet another dimension of subtle and elegant thinking.

  • Some Guy

    Makes me wonder how many oceanic creatures are out there that have yet to be discovered.

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