A New Dolphin and Tapir for the Amazon

The new species of tapir, Tapirus kabomani
A male Tapirus kabomani. Illustration by Gracielle Braga, used with permission.
Wildlife fans rejoice at the frequent announcements of new species. Five to ten new bird species, a few dozen mammals, 100-200 reptiles and amphibians (including a new frog in New York City in 2012), and thousands of plants and insects are described every year and these are often only the tip of the iceberg given biologists’ time constraints. Large mammal discoveries, however, are truly rare. At times, the new species is entirely unfamiliar to science (like the saola of Southeast Asia), and in other cases, the hard work of naturalists and geneticists finds that what we thought was one species is actually two or more.

The last year has been astounding for large mammal discoveries in South America, with a new wild cat called the southern tigrina, a new member of the raccoon family (and the internet’s most adorable animal) the olinguito, and most surprisingly, a new dolphin and tapir, both of which are among the largest animals on the entire continent.

Little Black Tapir Hiding in Plain Sight

A pair of kabomani tapirs, caught by a camera trap in Brazil.
Camera trap image of two kabomani tapirs. Photo by Samuel Nienow, used with permission.
Tapirs are very large, pig shaped animals most closely related to rhinoceroses and horses, and are found in both Latin America and Southeast Asia. As big as they are (up to 800 pounds or more for the Baird’s tapir), they are rarely seen in the forest habitats where they live, and rarely recognized in zoos despite their obviously photogenic appearance and short, “trunk-like” nose.

The newest species, Tapirus kabomani, is the smallest of all tapirs, (about 240 pounds) and, as is often the case, the species was already quite well known to the local Paumarí people who called it the “little black tapir.” It turns out that there have long been rumors of a distinct species, and one of the specimens used in the published description was collected by none other than Teddy Roosevelt during his epic journey through the Amazon in 1913-1914.

Distinct Dolphins (in White Suits?)

The new dolphin looks quite similar to its two cousins elsewhere in the Amazon, and was assumed to be the same species until recent genetic tests proved it to be distinct. It appears that the new species, Inia araguaiaensis, found only in the Araguaia river system of the eastern Amazon, has been separated from the rest of the Amazon river dolphins for two million years.

The new dolphin's cousin, Inia geoffrensis. Photo credit: Joachim S. Müller, used under Creative Commons 2.0 license.
The new dolphin’s cousin, Inia geoffrensis. Flickr photo by  Joachim S. Müller.
The dolphins are generally known as botos in Portuguese and are an odd sight, with a long, thin snout and often pink in color. Amazonian legends tell of botos that take human form and leave the river to seduce young women at parties. He can be recognized as a handsome young man in a white suit who is never without a hat on his head – in order to hide the giveaway dolphin blowhole, of course. Researchers suggest the entire population of the newly described Araguaia boto may number less than 1,000; they declined to speculate how many of these may be found on Saturday nights at riverside parties, asking young ladies to dance.

Legends aside, the knowledge of these species’ existence and distinctiveness is further evidence that we hardly know what’s out there in many areas that are at risk, and is a reminder of just how much is at stake. This wonderful news of a new river dolphin species comes just a few years, in fact, after the Yangtze river dolphin was declared extinct.  NWF is currently working to reduce the pressure on Amazonian forest and river ecosystems—including areas where the new tapir and dolphin live—by engaging with the large-scale commodity agriculture industries (cattle and soy) that are working to reduce deforestation. For more information, visit http://www.nwf.org/Deforestation.