California Tapir, Tapirus californicus
TAXONOMY & NOMENCLATURE *
*How Do We Know This? Like living animals, fossil remains of once-living animals
classified and grouped according to their relationships
each other and to their ancestors.
(Ashley 2006) (Colbert 2006) (Colbert & Schoch 1998) (Eberle 2005) (Prothero & Schoch 2002) (Scott 2006)
Describer (Date): Merriam 1913 for extinct Tapirus californicus
Taxonomic History and Nomenclature
Order: Perissodactyla (Horses, rhinos, tapirs)
Species: Tapirus californicus (extinct California Tapir)
- The word "tapir" is taken from the Amazonian native Tupi language.
- The California Tapir is named for the place where its fossils are found.
- Tapirs are considered "evolutionarily very conservative"; other than increases in size, they have changed little over time (Scott 2006)
- Tapir fossils known from 50 million year-old Eocene rocks on Ellesmere
Island, Arctic Canada
- Many other temperate climate plants and animals found in the same habitat
- Tapir-like mammals were once diverse and world-wide in distribution, although only four species live today in tropical latitudes. (Ashley et al 1996)
- A small tapir, Hesperaltes, lived in southern California some 45 million years ago (Colbert 2006)
- Protapirus lived between 40 and 30 million years ago in the western United States (Colbert and Schoch 1998) (Prothero and Schoch 2002)
- Between 30 and 20 million years ago three lineages of tapirs diverged
and then spread to South and Central America and Asia.(Eberle 2005)
- Tapirs very much like living tapirs today existed by 13 million years ago. (Colbert and Schoch 1998)
- Extinct Pleistocene tapirs are very similar to living tapirs; they all belong to the same
- Tapirus Californicus and a larger Tapirus merriami inhabited southern California during the Pleistocene. (Scott 2006)
- Tapirs locally extinct (extirpated) in North America by 13,000 years ago but survived in Asia and South America.
PREHISTORIC DISTRIBUTION & HABITAT*
*How Do We Know This? Scientists use knowledge of the earth's rocks, global plate
and the chemical process of fossilization
to make sense of fossil
distribution patterns and ancient habitats.
(Jefferson 1989) (Colbert & Schoch 1998)
- Coastal southern California (Jefferson 1989)
- A larger tapir, Tapirus merriami, lived at the same time, in more inland habitats
- Tapirs in Pleistocene times lived south of the limit of continental glaciation (Colbert & Schoch 1998)
- Forests, woodlands, perhaps grassland, especially near rivers and lakes
- Modern tapirs live up to 4,500 m (14,764 ft) in the Andes and perhaps fossil species were equally adaptable (McDonald 2006)
- Not yet found in mountains of western U.S.
- Species (Tapirus californicus) extinct by 13,000 years ago
- Genus (Tapirus) survives elsewhere
*How Do We Know This? Careful study of fossil bone or tooth anatomy yields
much exact information
about placement and strength of muscles, tendons, ligaments,
nerves, and blood vessels.
In rare cases, skin and hair impressions or actual skin or hair
Body weight is more difficult to gauge because fat leaves no impression on the skeleton.
(Colbert & Schoch 1998)
Estimated Body Weight: Estimated somewhat less than 225 kg (496 lb)
Head/Body Length: Estimated 140 cm (4.6 ft); no known complete fossil skeletal remains
- A stout-bodied herbivore with short legs, a large tapered head with a short muscular proboscis.
- Four toes on the front limbs, three on the hindlimbs.
- Molar teeth have two main cusps joined by enamel ridges (bilophodont); shape changed only slightly over millions of years.
- Dental formula same as living tapir: Six upper-jaw and six lower incisiors; two canines upper and two lower; eight premolars upper, six lower; six molars upper and six molars lower (total 42 teeth).
Other Physical Characteristics
- Nasal bones in skull are shortened to allow
for attachment of muscles and ligaments of a fleshy snout (proboscis) (Colbert and Schoch
BEHAVIOR & ECOLOGY*
*How Do We Know This? Since direct observation of a fossil animal's behavior isn't possible,
comparison and contrast with living animals for guidance. Tracks can
reveal further clues.
(Randal 2004) (Janis 1984)
- Believed to be solitary and non-territorial (Janis 1984)
- May have enjoyed mud wallowing like modern tapirs
- California tapir fossis have been found near Oceanside; at the same site, tracks of mammoth or mastodont were discovered in the Pleistocene lake-shore sediments. (Randal et al 2004)
- Modern tapirs are recognized to have an important role in dispersing and fertilzing seeds of fruiting trees (Downer 2001).
- Feeding habits of Pleistocene tapirs might have been similar.
DIET & FEEDING*
*How Do We Know This? Clues to fossil mammals' diets come from not only teeth,
but also skull shape, amount of
indicated by bones for a stomach and guts, from fossil
dung and gut contents, from lab analysis of oxygen isotopes
in bone and teeth, and by looking
at diets of similar modern animals.
(Colbert and Schoch 1998)
- Assumed to be like living tapirs: leaves, aquatic plants, fruit and seeds, including palm and avocado.
- Developing a flexible proboscis may have aided tapirs in feeding in marginal habitats
as their preferred lush habitats became more scarce over the millions of years of their evolution. (Colbert and Schoch 1998)
DISEASES AND PATHOLOGY*
*How do We Know This? Abnormalities in fossils bones may show
evidence of arthritis, cancer, nutritional stress, fractures and more.
Important Web Resources (including where to view fossils in museums):
- University of Texas Digimorph Project: An annotated collection of images from a large collection of skulls of living and fossil animals. Applet, Slices and 3D Models plus 3D Volume Rendered Movies show skulls from several perspectives. The modern tapirs (genus Tapirus) are featured.
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