Another New Mammal Discovered in South America

12/19/2013

Mongabay.com is reporting this week that another new mammal species has been discovered in South America on the heels of the announcement about the adorable olinguito a few months ago.  This time it's a new species of tapir.  

Most North Americans are unfamiliar with tapirs due to the fact that they live in remote tropical forests of South America and Asia. Until now, there have been four recognized tapir species, three in South America  (mountain, Baird's and lowland or Brazilian tapirs), and one in Asia (the Malayan tapir). All are shy, nocturnal and not easy to film, so they rarely show up in nature programs. Other than spending a lot of time in forests where tapirs live, the only chance most people ever have of seeing one of these animals is in a book or possibly at a zoo. 

Tapir
Photo by Samuel Nienow

That unfamiliarity adds to their oddness, but even if it didn't, tapirs are pretty strange-looking creatures. They kind of look like the a cross between a pig and a bear, with a dash of elephant thrown in for good measure courtesy of a funny looking proto-trunk at the end of their nose, but they are actually related to horses and rhinoceroses.  To me they look much more like long-extinct mammals such as Palorchestes or Toxodon than any other creature surviving today. Indeed, they evolved approximately 50 million years ago and are considered "living fossils."  That's partly because tapirs are quite large--in fact they are largest mammals found in South America. 

Tapir 2

Photo by Samuel Nienow 

So how does such a large, weird-looking creature go undetected?  Well, it really didn't. Like the olinguito, it was not undetected but rather undescribed by science. The new tapir species was a well-known animal to the local indigineous people, but biologists simply thought that they were lowland tapirs. A decade ago, one scientist heeded the local people and began studying the skulls and DNA of these animals, which clearly showed they were a distinct species. But it wasn't until this week that these tapirs have officially been announced as a species newly described by science and tentatively dubbed the Kabomani tapir. 

 

Tapir illustration

Illustration by Grazielle Braga

Here's more info from the press release about this exciting annoucement:

New species of tapir is discovered in Brazil

Studies to identify the new animal by UFMG team began about 10 years ago in Porto Velho (RO)

A new species of tapir, animal of the order Perissodactyla - tapirs, horses, zebras and rhinoceroses - was discovered in the Amazonian areas of fields, north of Porto Velho, on the border of Rondônia and Amazonas states in Brazil. The Tapirus kabomani is the first new species of the order Perissodactyla found in the last 100 years and the first tapir revealed in 150 years. The discovery was officially recognized in this year, in the Journal of Mammalogy, a scientific journal focused on studies and research related to mammals.

Although the species has been made official in 2013 by a team of professors and researchers from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), the study would reveal the new tapir began approximately 10 years ago. The first evidence appeared on the surveys conducted by paleontologist Mario Cozzuol, at the time he was a professor at the Federal University of Rondônia (UNIR). On occasion, he found a skull of a tapir different from the others. After morphological and genetic material collected from riverine populations, hunters and Karitiana indians, it was concluded that this was really a new species of tapir. The study had the collaboration of authors from eight distinct areas, according to the professor, all were essential to the result.

Through the materials collected for comparison, as explained Cozzuol, he realized that it was similar to a species called 'Brazilian tapir', the Tapirus terrestris, but with some differences. The new species had shorter legs, as well as smaller size and weight than the common 'Brazilian tapir”, and has a crest less prominent. The new species also possessed darker skin when compared to the 'Brazilian tapir', being so called 'little black tapir' by some Amazonian communities.

Professor Fabricio Santos, UFMG, co-author of the paper describing the new species and coordinator of the genetic studies, emphasizes that the morphology and genetic data were very consistent. According to Fabricio, they allowed the description of a new species of large mammal, which had been hunted in northern Mato Grosso, by former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, in the early twentieth century. The specimen taken at the time is currently in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, in the United States.

However, the skeleton and the skin of the reference specimen for the new species, called the holotype, is deposited in the zoological collection of the Center for Taxonomic Collections of UFMG. "Our next stage of research is to determine the actual distribution of occurrence and conservation status of the new species, which should probably be threatened, since the most common species in Brazil, Tapirus terrestris, is already considered vulnerable to extinction by the red book [Red List of Brazilian fauna threatened with extinction, organized by the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio)" says Flávio Rodrigues, professor of ecology at UFMG and also coauthor of the article.

The finding of the new mammal species was supported by Fundação Grupo Boticario for Nature Protection (FBPN), which, between 2010 and 2012, funded a project which enabled the studies. To zoologist and paleontologist Mario Cozzuol, FBPN was very important for the description of the second species of tapir found in Brazil. "The Foundation has contributed much to the research. Support for the project allowed to collect a large number of specimens of the new species to DNA analyses to become more complete, allowing to visit some of the places of occurrence" said Cozzuol. "Without this support, the confirmation process would take much longer," he adds.

The study was also supported by the Foundation for Research Support of the State of Minas Gerais (FAPEMIG) and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). 

Knowledge that comes from the community

A highlight of the discovery process of Tapirus kabomani was the appreciation of the knowledge of local communities in the areas where the research took place. Since this is now the second largest mammal in South America, it is now surprising how this new species went unnoticed for a long time by the scientific community – especially because of its similarities with the 'Brazilian tapir' - but not for the natives and local inhabitants of the Amazon. "These populations traditionally reported seeing what they called 'a different kind of anta'. However, the scientific community has never paid much attention to the fact, stating that it was always the same Tapirus terrestris", explained Cozzuol. "They did not give value to local knowledge and thought the locals were wrong. Knowledge of the local community needs to be taken into account and that's what we did in our study, which culminated in the discovery of a new species to science", says the professor.

The family of tapirs

The tapirs are part of the Tapiridae family, a group of mammals of the order Perissodactyla, which inhabits Central America, South America and Southeast Asia. Tapirs are the largest mammals of South America and can weigh up to 300 pounds. Among the characteristics that identify these animals include paws with three toes on hind legs, and an additional and much smaller in front. Another detail is the flexible trunk, until 17 cm long, bearing important hairs to decipher smell and feel damp.

The usual habitats of tapirs are moist forests and near the rivers. These habitat characteristics are important because they often take water baths and mud as a way to get rid of ticks, fleas and other parasites. The food basically consists of leaves, fruits, buds, branches, aquatic plants, grass and pasture, and are defined as herbivorous.

Tapirs have nocturnal habits, hiding in the woods during the day. At night, they go out to graze, going up to ten hours in search of food. They are considered solitary animals, forming couples only in the breeding season. The new species is partially sympatric - that shares the same habitat - with the common species, the 'Brazilian tapir' or Tapirus terrestris.

With the identification of Tapirus kabomani, five species of tapirs are now described scientifically. The new species happens to be the second largest South American mammal, weighing on average 220 pounds (100 kg), behind only 'Brazilian tapir' (Tapirus terrestris).

The Boticario Foundation supported the discovery of new species

Through nature conservation initiatives supported by the Boticário Foundation it has been possible to describe 67 new species of animals and plants. Before Tapirus kabomani, the last two findings were a bird and an amphibian. The Cinclodes espinhacensis, bird is in the same family as other ovenbirds, and it was found in the Serra do Cipo, located in the southern Serra do Espinhaço, in Minas Gerais, Brazil, 50 kilometers from the state capital. The other species found, the frog Brachycephalus tridactylus, was discovered in Salto Morato Natural Reserve (PR), located on the Atlantic Forest, the most threatened in Brazil.

About the Boticãrio Foundation - The Boticário Foundation for Nature Protection is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote and carry out conservation actions of nature. Founded in 1990 on the initiative of the founder of O Boticário, Miguel Krigsner, the performance of Boticário Foundation is a nationwide and its actions include protection of natural areas, supporting projects of other institutions and dissemination of knowledge. Since its inception, the Foundation has supported 1,355 projects and 465 institutions throughout Brazil. The institution maintains two nature reserves, the Salto Morato Natural Reserve, in the Atlantic Forest biome, and the Natural Reserve of Serra do Tombador, in the Cerrado biome, the two most threatened biomes in the country. Another initiative is a pioneering project of payment for environmental services in wealth areas, the Oasis.

Get Involved! Protect wildlife with David and the National Wildlife Federation. 

 


David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. His goal is to inspire others to appreciate the wonders of nature. Meet David >
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