When I first began studying the scientific literature on Pleistocene mammals in 1988 I excitedly told my little sister and my now ex-brother-in-law that tapirs and capybaras used to live in Georgia. Neither knew what a tapir or capybara was, and they looked at me like I was nuts. This happened before the days of the popular internet, and I couldn’t readily show them photos of the animals on a computer screen. Another great benefit of the internet is that I can communicate with people who actually care and also share my interest.
Mountain or woolly tapir (Tapirus pinchaque). Of the 4 species of tapir in the world, this is the only one that inhabits a temperate forest. The others are tropical. The extinct Vero tapir also inhabited temperate forests as far north as what today is Kansas. Like the Vero tapir, the mountain tapir is likely headed toward extinction. There are only 9 in zoos and less than 2500 in the wild.
Jaw bone of a Vero tapir. The partial jaw of a tapir is the only Pleistocene fossil reported from Anderson Spring Cave in Walker County, Georgia. The ridged teeth are evidence they browse rather than graze.
View from inside Anderson Spring Cave, Walker County, Georgia. The jaw bone of a tapir was found here. Photo by Kelly Smallwood.
The type specimen of the Vero tapir was found in Vero Beach, Florida in 1915, and it was associated with human bones dating to about 14,000 BP–a find that caused considerable controversy at the time because mainstream archaeologists refused to believe humans lived in North America prior to 6,000 BP. Apparently, the Vero tapir was a fairly common species in the Pleistocene southeast. In Georgia fossils of the Vero tapir have been found at Ladds Mountain, Bartow County; Anderson Spring Cave, Walker County; the Isle of Hope site and Savannah River dredgings in Chatham County; and at Watkins Quarry in Glynn County. Northern Alabama fossil sites produced tapir bones too. Both Cave ACb-3 and Bell Cave were the final resting places for a few tapirs. In the latter site tapir fossils were associated with caribou and long-nosed peccary bones–what an odd mix of ungulates. This suggests the Vero tapir was a temperate species, capable of surviving subfreezing temperatures. The still extant (though probably not for long) mountain tapir lives in cloud forests above 6500 feet in elevation in Peru, so it’s not all that unusual for a tapir species to live in a temperate climate, though the 3 other living species inhabit the tropics.
Extant tapirs are big strong animals weighing up to 600 pounds. The Vero tapir was slightly larger than this, and it must have been a tough creature able to fend off big cats, wolves, and bears. When cornered they bite and put up a ferocious battle, but more often they shake off their attackers by running through dense vegetation or diving into deep water. Their tough hides keep them from getting scrapes and abrasions while stampeding through brush. A recent television documentary on National Geographic Wild showed film of vampire bats feeding upon tapirs which ignored the pesky bloodsuckers. Deer were much more sensitive and vigilant about keeping the bats from biting them, perhaps explaining why vampire bats are extinct in North America. The bats need beasts with thick skins that can’t detect them.
The tapir’s unusual looking and prominent proboscis is utilitarian. It’s prehensile and used to grip and strip branches of leaves. They eat forest vegetation such as ferns, leaves, and succulent plants. Their preferred habitat is moist woodlands and river bottomlands. During the Pleistocene whenever climatic conditions favored the spread of woodlands tapir populations in southeastern North America probably expanded. Unfavorable climatic conditions probably limited them to riverine corridors. Modern tapirs are considered keystone species because they’re important seed dispersers. Wax palms and highland lupines decline in abundance whenever mountain tapirs are hunted out of a region. Certain plant species were likely more abundant during the Pleistocene, thanks to the Vero tapir’s inefficient digestive system. Some unknown species of plants may have even become extinct after tapirs were gone.
The terminal radiocarbon date for the Vero tapir in southeastern North America is 11,450. This translates to a calender year date of 13,300 BP. They probably lasted in isolated pockets for 2 or 3 thousand years longer, but they’ve been gone a long time now. The mountain tapir has been discussed as a candidate for Pleistocene rewilding in North America. This won’t happen. The mountain tapir is expected to become extinct in the wild by the end of the decade. It needs continuous stretches of cloud forest–patchy forests are inadequate. All captive individuals are descendents of 2 individuals, so it will inbreed itself to death in zoos as well. Last month, black rhinos were declared extinct in the wild. Our modern forests are already impoverished and devoid of diversity. The loss of yet 2 more species of megafauna is unspeakably sad.