In my previous posts I have written about Patagonian tapirs. We have read reports by chroniclers and explorers and we must conclude that there may be a shred of truth in them. The main issue however, is how could a tropical mammal survive under the harsh Patagonian conditions. Today we will try to find out if this could be possible.
Tapirs in Patagonia, but how?
Tapir can be found in Northern Argentina and the surrounding tropical and subropical areas of Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay. Nevertheless, free access from this region into Patagonia is impeded by an “Arid Gap" (which I have already written about in a previous post). See map.
Current aridity in the Patagonian steppe and along its northern border would impede migration of tapir into the region.
Besides, Patagonia’s cold climate is the opposite of this creature’s current tropical habitat. Nevertheless climatic changes of the post-glacial period, which shifted forest ranges northwards from Patagonia and south towards it from the subtropical region, may have allowed the formation of a continuous forest bridge through which tapirs could have moved into the southern Andean woods.
In Central Chile, at Talinay (30°40 S, 71°35’ W), a relict forest growing in the midst of a currently arid region is proof of this possibility. This forest thrives on the mist blown in from the ocean and its vegetation is very similar to the Valdivian rain-forest of Patagonia. It could have originated by the Valdivian forest’s northwards advance during the Ice Ages or, as a survivor of the ample subtropical forests that covered southern South America at the end of the late Cenozoic Era. The former is more likely and means that the temperate Patagonian forest extended out of Patagonia towards the current habitat of the tapir merging with the tropical forests.
Rainfall patterns during the late Cenozoic Era some 30 to 50 thousand years ago confirm the prevalence of humid conditions in what is now the arid horseshoe that separates Patagonian forests from the subtropical jungle in northern Argentina. These damper conditions could have narrowed the “gap” of this Arid Continental horseshoe and maybe even created a continuous forest coverage that could have allowed tapir circulation into Patagonia. Additional rain would have provided the necessary water sources for the tapir to bridge this now arid gap.
When the arid conditions were restored after deglaciation, the tapir remained isolated in Patagonia in areas where abundant water and forests could provide a suitable habitat.
But, could the tapir, whose usual habitat is the very warm subtropical or tropical jungles in South America and South East Asia survive in the cold Patagonian climate?
The woolly tapir
Yes, it could; in fact, one of the South American tapirs has extended its habitat upwards into the cold Andean peaks where it lives at high altitudes (between 2.000 and 4.400 meters - 6,600 and 14,400 ft.). At those heights it is quite common for the temperature to fall below freezing point.
Notice how it feels at home in the frothing waters of a mountain stream. If you saw a tapir in a stream or a lake, would you liken it to a horse or a cow? i.e. a lake bull (I have many posts on lakes with these "bulls" frolicking in their waters).
To survive under those harsh conditions this tapir developed a woolly coat. A woolly fur that is remarkably similar to the preceding description of “hairy hogs” and woolly creatures.
This species is known as the wooly tapir or mountain tapir of the Andes (Tapirus pinchaque); they are the only species of tapir to live outside the lowland forests. Their habitat is now restricted to Ecuador, Peru and Colombia, but may have extended further in the past (perhaps south along the Andean peaks).
They are the smallest among the tapirs being about 1,8 meters long (6 ft.) and about 1 meter high (3.3 ft). They can weigh up to 225 kg (500 lb.). Like all South American tapirs, their fur has a uniform dark brown or gray color.
Mountain tapir’s splayed hooves allow it to walk even on the high mountain glaciers and snow, and it can run swiftly through the thick forests and up mountain slopes. (See a photograph of the Mountain tapir’s foot).
Perhaps it is these tracks that Ned Chace likened to “cleats”. It would also allow them to trek the Patagonian ice fields and climb its mountains.
Though placid and gentle, if angry a tapir can be a dangerous beast. Prone to “tantrums”, they can become wild and aggressive and use their teeth to maul and bite. In 1998, a tapir pulled a zoo keeper into its cage and bit her arm off at the Oklahoma City Zoo in the US This trait would have made them fearsome and very probably frighten the natives.
Tapirs usually live solitary lives in the thick jungle and prefer swamps close to lakes and rivers, where they wallow in the mud and splash about in the water. They are extremely good swimmers and will jump into the water and even dive under it like a hippopotamus when chased by a predator.
They are exclusively herbivorous and eat the twigs, buds, leaves and fruits of the forest. Being night creatures, they spend most of the daylight hours asleep, concealed.
Many native peoples in America hunt them for their meat putting pressure on the species. As their reproductive rate is quite low and females bear only one calf after a thirteen month gestation period if they are under a high hunting pressure and their population density is too low to allow for them to meet and mate, they can easily become extinct at a regional level.
With this in mind, it could have been possible that the tapir lived in Patagonia in scant numbers, safe by the forests in the southern Andes in the Tehuelche territory south of the land of the Mapuche.
François Déiré Roulin, who described the Andean tapir for the first time noted that excluding the pig, the tapir is the most adaptable amongst the pachyderms and could thus live in very different environments.
Patagonian forests are a tough environment during winter, but adapting like the woolly mountain tapir, the Patagonian variety could have survived the in the low lying valleys by the lakes.
Furthermore, these are the low altitude valleys where Onelli had expected to find his edentate during the plesiosaur expedition they would have provided a milder climate during winter and abundant vegetation to feed on.
Thus the tapir may explain the plesiosaur and other aquatic creatures.
A strange tapir with talons
Woolly Tapir’s cannot explain the aggressive predator behavior of certain Patagonian lake creatures, they are not able to drag bullocks under water or behave violently like the Iemisch.
However Captain FitzRoy wrote about a strange kind of tapir that was mentioned to him by Rodriguez, the commandant of the Bahia Blanca garrison in 1833. Rodriguez told him that in Paraguay he had seen:
a 'gran bestia,' [great beast] not many months old, but which then stood about four feet high. It was very fierce, and secured by a chain. Its shape resembled that of a hog, but it had talons on its feet instead of hoofs; the snout was like a hog's, but much longer. When half-grown, he was told that it would be capable of seizing and carrying away a horse or a bullock. I concluded that he must have seen a tapir or anta; yet as he persisted in asserting that the animal he saw was a beast of prey,* and that it was extremely rare.
- Neither of which remarks apply to the Anta.
This killer tapir is indeed a creature something that could drag bullocks underwater, it would also fill Iemsch’s shoes and could even account for the “bloody” behavior of Succarath.
Despite being reported in Paraguay, far away from Patagonia, it may have been this species –now unknown- and not the Woolly Tapir that had marched south into Patagonia.
The animal described by FitzRoy seems to be the “tapiré-iauará” which is said to live in remote areas of the Amazon jungle. It is also known as onca d'agua -“water jaguar” in Portuguese- a name which is strikingly similar to the Patagonian “water tiger” and could probably be the same creature –that crossed the arid gap together with the tapir.
As tapir are peaceful herbivores, the bloody tapiré-iauará must belng to some carnivore species distinct from tapirs.
It has been suggested that it belongs to a long extinct group of predators which were replaced by the “pawed” carnivores that we are familiar with today such as wolves, lions, seals and bears.
Before them, there were “hoofed” predators, the Mesonychidae, who lost the competition for survival against pawed predators.
All of them died out except one which became aquatic, a kind of hoofed otter that later evolved into whales and dolphins.
Mesonychids were well adapted to running, had large heads with strong jaws and their toes ended in tiny hoof-like claws.
Their disappearance. Tapir are not seen again.
Nowadays there are no tapir in Patagonia -woolly or clawed- or if there are any, they are very well concealed.
If we assume that they somehow managed to migrate and adapt to the Patagonian environment, their current absence is a sign that they have become extinct quite recently.
Maybe the pressure by the encroaching Spanish conquistadors and the continuous war that engaged Mapuche and Spaniard led to an increased demand for Tapir hides as body armor. This could have led the more mobile (due to the horses introduced by the Spaniards) Tehuelche tribe to over-hunt them.
Colder weather that began around the XVth century (Little Ice Age) may have added to this negative impact on their population and these factors coupled with the hunting by the Tehuelche and their low birth rate may have given the Patagonian tapir its final blow, pushing them to extinction together with its Patagonian jaguar predator.
A few surviving Tapir in isolated pockets could easily explain the myths about pig-like bulky long haired animals. Their barrel shaped bodies would indeed look like those of the lake creatures described by Juana Sheffield at Epuyen or Elías Geríz at Lake Colhue Huapi.
They could also be taken for bulls or horses cavorting in the lakes (Calimayos).
It is possible that the legends regarding Patagonian lake creatures are the undying specter of the wooly tapir.
Read Parts one and two of the Patagonian Tapir.
Also, my Feb. 2010 post on Patagonian tapirs - more evidence.
 Villagrán, C. and Hinojosa, L., (2005). Esquema Biogeográfico de Chile. In: Llorente Bousquets, J. and Morrone, J., [Eds.], (2005) Regionalizacion Biogeogrefica en Iberoamerica y topicos afines. Mexico: Ediciones de la Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. Chap. 33. pp. 560+
 Mountain Tapir photograph. courtesy John Abbott and Kendra Bauer.
 Oglethorpe, J., et al., (1997). Tapirs: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan, IUCN/SSC. Cambridge: IUCN. pp. 10.
 Los Angeles Times. (1998). Tapir Bites Off Zookeeper's Arm. Los Angeles, US 21.11.1998.
 Boussingault, J., et al. (1849). Viajes Cientificos a los Andes ecuatoriales. Paris: Lasserre. pp. 253.
 FitzRoy, R., (1839). Op. Cit. v.ii. pp. 107.
Further reading and data on Mountain tapirs.
Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall ©
Patagonian Monsters Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia