Scientists Discover a New Species of Tapir; Locals Say, “We Told You!”

The new tapir is the smallest of the world’s five known species but it still counts as one of the largest mammals found in South America

New tapir
The new tapir, Tapirus kabomani. Courtesy of Mario Cozzuol et al.
People usually know what they're talking about when it comes to the animals that live in their own backyard. For years, however, scientists ignored locals in the Amazon who said there was not one but two species of tapir—a large mammal that slightly resembles a pig—roaming the forest, Mongabay reports. Now, science has caught up to what the locals knew all along. Authors of a recent research paper finally paid attention and discovered that a new species of tapir does indeed exist.

Four other species of tapirs are found in the Amazon and in Southeast Asia, but a new one hasn't been discovered since 1865. The new tapir, dubbed Tapirus kabomani, is the smallest of the bunch but still counts as one of the largest mammals found in South America.

Mongabay elaborates:

Found inhabiting open grasslands and forests in the southwest Amazon (the Brazilian states of Rondônia and Amazonas, as well as the Colombian department of Amazonas), the new species is regularly hunted by the Karitiana tribe who call it the "little black tapir." The new species is most similar to the Brazilian tapir (Tapirus terrestris), but sports darker hair and is significantly smaller: while a Brazilian tapir can weigh up to 320 kilograms (710 pounds), the Kabomani weighs-in around 110 kilograms (240 pounds). Given its relatively small size it likely won't be long till conservationists christen it the pygmy or dwarf tapir. It also has shorter legs, a distinctly-shaped skull, and a less prominent crest.

After noticing some discrepancies in tapir skull specimens about a decade ago, lead author Mario Cozzuol finally decided to investigate. He followed up on leads from locals about the "little black tapir," and they provided Cozzuol and his team with skulls and other materials for genetic analysis. Those tests, combined with field surveys, confirmed that this tapir was indeed a species unrecognized by the scientific community. "Local peoples have long recognized our new species, suggesting a key role for traditional knowledge in understanding the biodiversity of the region," Cozzuol concludes in his paper. 

Interestingly enough, it seems Theodore Roosevelt also listened to the native experts. A skull from an animal he hunted in 1912 matches up with the new species, Mongobay writes, and at the time Roosevelt commented that indigenous people told him it belonged to a "distinct kind" of tapir.

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