At the Gray Fossil Site Symposium, Richard Hulbert from the Florida Museum of Natural History reminded everyone that today is World Tapir Day, and event and organization that supports tapir conservation efforts. There are four living species of tapir, and all are endangered to some degree. Tapirus bairdii (above, Jacksonville Zoo), T. terrestris, and T. pinchaque are all found in the Americas from Mexico south, while T. indicus (below, Henry Doorly Zoo) is found in Malaysia.
Like their perissodactyl relatives, the rhinoceroses and the horses, the first probable tapirs occur in the Eocene of North America. Tapirs were widespread in North America through most of the Cenozoic (there are huge numbers of them at Gray and in Florida, as well as the midwest), and only disappeared from this continent at the end of the Pleistocene.
Even with generally sparse terrestrial deposits in the east, Pleistocene tapirs have been reported from four sites in Virginia (in Giles, Wythe, Highland, and Shenandoah Counties). Two tapir elements have also been reported from Carmel Church (Dooley, 2007), the only Miocene tapir remains from Virginia. These include a fragment of a right deciduous lower premolar tooth (VMNH 1803, lateral and occlusal views)…
While these are the only Miocene tapirs from Virginia, there have been a few others found in the Calvert Formation in Maryland. Gazin and Collins (1950) described this maxilla fragment from Chesapeake Beach (stored at the Smithsonian, USNM 18372 lateral view):
A few years later a mandible fragment was found at the same location (USNM 21377, medial view):
Both these specimens are from the Calvert, but their exact ages are not known (the Calvert spans 4 million years, and much of it is exposed at Chesapeake Beach). This mandible fragment does make an interesting comparison with the Carmel Church tooth fragment, though:
The Carmel Church tapir dwarfs the one from Chesapeake Beach; the premolar is twice as wide. This suggests that there are at least two tapir species in the Calvert Formation, although they may not have overlapped in time. Hopefully more of these tapirs will turn up in the future.
Happy World Tapir Day!