This week, the biggest animal discovery of the 21st century was announced. Meet kabomani, the “little black tapir.” He’s a shy and elusive fellow, living below the radar in the grasslands and forests of Brazil and Colombia. He’s also the largest terrestrial mammal found since 1992, when the saola of Southeast Asia raised his bovine head. How does a quarter-ton animal slip past the prying eyes of science for so long? Easy – just ignore what local people have been trying to tell you!

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One of the continent’s largest and last megafauna, tapirs are surprisingly easy to overlook. Mostly active at night, they move slowly and cryptically, and they spend much of their time in and under the water. Still, this little guy has been rooting around right under our noses for more than a hundred years. In fact, the first known specimen was collected by none other than Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy’s field notes remark that this specimen, taken by another member of his party, “was a bull, full grown but very much smaller than the animal I had killed (a Brazilian tapir, Tapirus terrestris). The hunters said that this was a distinct kind.’’ The Karitiana tribe who live in the area regularly hunt kabomani, and of course they knew all along that the little fellow was a different animal altogether. The Karitianans can take some satisfaction in at least getting the naming rights. The new tapir is Tapirus kabomani, meaning “tapir” in the local Paumari language.

The kabomani is the first tapir discovered since 1865, and the first Perissodactyl (the order that includes tapirs, rhinos, and horses) found in over one hundred years. The last one was Przwalski’s Horse, way back in 1882. This new species looks much like a Brazilian tapir, but at only 250 pounds, he’s much smaller than his 700 pound cousin.

Mario Cozzuol, lead author and paleontologist on the Journal of Mammology paper announcing the discovery, first suspected the presence of the new species a decade ago while looking at some unusual skulls. His team then collected genetic material and specimens from local hunters and the Karitiana Indians. An extensive investigation of the tapir’s appearance and genetics proved this was indeed a new species of megafauna. Fabrício R. Santos, the paper’s co-author, says indigenous people were critical to the discovery, because they had known about its existence for decades, if not centuries, and can precisely identify their skulls.

For scientists and conservationists, this discovery is especially important. Only five species of tapir remain alive, dwindling relics of a once diverse group that spread from South America across the Bering Straits into Asia, Africa, and Europe. These include the Brazilian tapir, mountain tapir, Baird’s tapir, and the new Kabomani, all living in Central or South America, and one species in Asia (the Malayan tapir). All are threatened with extinction from hunting and loss of habitat, and the kabomani is no different. The region plans to build two large dams in the area, as well as many roads, and faces alarming rates of deforestation. How long will our tiny new addition remain in the family? We can certainly hope he will stay with us for the foreseeable future. Welcome, little kabomani!

Via Mongabay, Journal of Mammalogy

Images via Cozzuol et al, Fabrício R. Santos