Until recently, only indigenous tribes in Brazil and Colombia knew about one of the biggest animals on the South American continent.
It was only when scientists took a closer look did they realize the locals were right -- there were two species of tapir, a large browsing animal that resembles a pig. In a new study published in the Journal of Mammology, scientists have named the new species Tapirus kabomani.
"[Indigenous people] traditionally reported seeing what they called 'a different kind of anta [tapir in Portuguese].' However, the scientific community has never paid much attention to the fact, stating that it was always the same Tapirus terrestris," lead author Mario Cozzuol told Mongabay.com. "They did not give value to local knowledge and thought the locals were wrong. Knowledge of the local community needs to be taken into account and that's what we did in our study, which culminated in the discovery of a new species to science."
The species had been captured before, but wrongfully attributed to the Brazilian tapir.
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“It is noteworthy that the 1st known specimen collected for this species remained unidentiﬁed for almost 100 years although the collector, Theodore Roosevelt, remarked that this specimen '…was a bull, full grown but very much smaller than the animal I had killed. The hunters said that this was a distinct kind.' Roosevelt sent the specimen to the U.S. for analysis, but it was considered just a variation of T. terrestris, [the Brazilian tapir],” researchers wrote in the paper.
The friendly, nocturnal tapir is elusive and weighs roughly 250 pounds. Four species of tapir were identified in the Amazon and Southeast Asia. Before the latest discovery, the last time a tapir was found was in 1865. While the Tapirus kabomani seems large, it's in fact the smallest.
“The new species is regularly hunted by the Karitiana tribe who call it the ‘little black tapir,’” Mongabay reports. “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."
The discovery is decades in the making. Cozzuol found discrepancies in tapir skulls that were marked differently. Researchers then collected genetic material from tapir specimens captured from local hunters. Morphology and DNA evidence proved the tapir belonged to a separate species.
"[Indigenous people] were essential," co-author Fabrício R. Santos told Mongabay.com, "particularly because they know about this 'variety' for decades, if not, centuries, and the hunters can precisely differentiate both species, because all of skulls they provide us matched our morphometric and DNA analyses."