Temporal range: Middle to late Pleistocene
Tapirus californicus, rarely called the California tapir, is an extinct species of tapirs that inhabited North America during the Pleistocene era. T. californicus went extinct about 13,000 to 11,000 BC at the end of the last ice age.
Tapirs have a long history on the North American continent. Fossils of ancient tapirs in North America can be dated back to 50 million-year-old Eocene rocks on Ellesmere Island, Canada, which was then a temperate climate. By 13 million years ago, tapirs very much like extant tapirs existed in Southern California.
During the Pleistocene era, a number of other species of tapirs are known to have inhabited the North American continent. Along with Tapirus californicus, Tapirus merriami was found in California and Arizona, Tapirus veroensis was found in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, and Tennessee, and Tapirus copei was found from Pennsylvania to Florida.
T. californicus, like most extant tapirs, was believed to have been a largely solitary animal, and inhabited primarily the coastal regions of Southern California (although one specimen has been found in Oregon), preferring forested environments and possibly grasslands near rivers and lakes. Its maximum weight was about 225 kg (496 lb) and the estimated body length was 140 cm (4.6 ft), although no known complete fossil skeletal remains have been collected. Study of the skull shows T. californicus had shortened nasal bones to allow for attachment of strong muscles and ligaments to form a fleshy, prehensile snout like all extant tapirs. It was herbivorous, and its diet is believed to have consisted of shrubs, leaves, aquatic plants, fruits, and seeds. T. californicus was most likely prey to such predators as smilodons, dire wolves, American lions and paleo-Indians.
A number of fossils of T. californicus have been collected at the La Brea Tar Pits in the modern urban center of Los Angeles. The cluster of tar pits have trapped and preserved many specimens of Plestocene-era fauna.
- San Diego Zoo: California Tapir, Tapirus californicus, 2009
- Eberle, J. 2005. A new "tapir" from Ellesmere Island, Arctic Canada - Implications for northern high latitude palaeobiogeography and tapir palaeobiology. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 277(4): 311-322.
- Colbert, M. and R. Schoch 1998. Tapiroidea and other moropomorphs. In: C. Janis, K. Scott, L. Jacobs, (eds) Evolution of Tertiary Mammals of North America. Volume I: Terrestrial carnivores, ungulates, and ungulate like mammals. Cambridge University Press.
- Björn Kurtén, Elaine Anderson: Pleistocene mammals of North America, pp 293-294. Columbia University Press, 1980 ISBN 0231037333
- Return to the Ice Age: The La Brea Exploration Guide