Tonight, we take you to the Belize Zoo for a live online session about tapirs. As we’ve reported, the Zoo has embarked on a new and exciting virtual education programme that will take teachers and students inside the zoo to learn about the wildlife. Schools from abroad are taking advantage of the programme, but the zoo wants to engage local schools. We give you a look tonight at one of the most recognizable and loved animals in Belize – our national animal – the Tapir. Reporter Andrea Polanco joined the Zoo’s Education Director for a crash course in tapir adaptation. Here’s the story.
Andrea Polanco, Reporting
The Tapir is one of the oldest land mammals. These animals have been around for millions of years yet they have changed very little. But what has helped this species to live for so long? I jointed Jamal Andrewin Bohn, the Education Director of Belize Zoo to learn more about some of the characteristics, features and behaviours of the tapir that have helped the species to survive. Our lesson starts at the management pen with Indy the Tapir.
Jamal Andrewin Bohn, Education Director, The Belize Zoo
“So, for Tapirs, some of the more obvious ones they have a very long, flexible nose that you see Indy is using to try and get into the bucket. You can call it a snout, truck, whatever you like to call it. The technical term for it is a prehensile snout, meaning that it can grasp, so obviously if you think about their behavior what they like to eat, this is a very good tool for grasping low hanging fruit, leaves, and so on getting it closer to their mouth and then they use this lovely set of teeth, including some rounded canines incisors to ground down all that vegetative matter. So, it is very good for crushing down fruits, seeds, leave than consuming it whole.”
Tapirs are large animals. Their big and strong feet are an important feature that helps them to adapt. They walk and move across habitats with ease because of these splayed hoofed toes.
Jamal Andrewin Bohn
“You don’t necessarily find them on mountains but they can handle high elevation quite well. So, these feet you see here are what you would call prehistoric – they have changed very little over the millions of years that tapirs have been around. So, it is almost as if they have four-wheel drives built into their feet. They are good for grasping and climbing up river banks and mountainous areas like I mentioned. So, they can easily navigate these areas to get down to water sources and back out of it. And as you saw just now, if something suddenly spooks or startles them like a predator or jaguar or so, they can shoot off in a hurry and get to a safer area.”
They are active mostly at night. And although they don’t have very good eyesight – tapirs have excellent senses of smell and hearing to help them get food and avoid danger.
Jamal Andrewin Bohn
“To get around in a dark habitat they rely on their senses, obviously. So, they have a fantastic sense of smell to seek our not only food but potential threats; very acute hearing – so you can see his hears are adapted to being very mobile almost like little satellite moving around, picking up every little crack of a branch or shuffle in the forest to try to differentiate between friend or foe in the wild. Their eye sight is relatively poor compared to the other senses but it is still better than ours.”
Another characteristic that has helped this mammal to survive is its strong and thick skin which helps to protect them. Although these adaptation features have helped this species to live long, today tapirs are endangered. In Belize, jaguars are their natural predator in the forest. But humans may their biggest threat – after all, hunting, road accidents and deforestation are three of the biggest threats to tapirs. And as Belizeans we should do more to protect these animals because they help to shape and maintain the biological diversity of our forests.
Jamal Andrewin Bohn
“That ability to consume, to find food easily, chew it down – apart from being beneficial to them, if we lead into conservation, the role that they play in the forest is as seed dispersers. So, the fact they can seek out and consume a lot of fruit, fallen seeds in our forest and consume them and pass them into other areas of the forest is a very useful way of keeping the forest generating. So, this is where it kind of leads into the human dimension of wildlife where their survival, their adaptations benefit both them and as a species. They keep our forest healthy and we know that Belizeans derive a lot of benefits from a healthy forest, so these guys are one of the engineers of keeping that going.”