The Cryptid Zoo: Tapire-iauara

The tapire-iauara is an animal that is reported from remote areas of the Amazon Rainforest. It has characteristics that remind witnesses of both a tapir and a jaguar. Since the Amazon Rainforest is an area where mainstream scientists might expect to discover a new species of large mammal, the tapire-iauara is an exciting prospect. This creature is called several different names by natives to the area, including tai-acu-iara and onca d'agua. These names translate into various references to jaguars and tapirs, including "water jaguar" and "tapir nymph." The tapire-iauara is reported to live over large areas of the Amazon basin in South America, including the Orinoco River in Venezuela, the Negro River and the Madeira River in Brazil, and the Amazon River itself from Codajas to Santarem.

Witnesses describe the tapire-iauara as an animal about the same size as a cow. In most sightings it has red or red-gold fur, but a few witnesses describe animals with black fur. In rare instances, the black animals have a large white patch on the front of the body. The tapire-iauara has a face that reminds people of a cat or jaguar, but it lacks the jaguar's spots. The rest of its body is not much like a jaguar. The large, drooping ears are cow-shaped, the legs are shaped like those of a donkey, and the animal may have hooves. Witnesses are not always sure about this last detail, since the tapire-iauara is often seen swimming or standing in water that hides the extremities of its limbs. Some witnesses say that it has paws like a jaguar's on its front feet and hooves on its hind feet. Its glossy coat repels water like the feathers of a duck, and it exudes an oily smell, possible evidence that it waterproofs its fur with natural oil secretions like so many aquatic mammals. All these characteristics vary somewhat, and as the creature blends into folklore there are some ridiculous pictures, such as a jaguar with duck feet, but these are in the minority and can easily be discounted as typical of the distortions produced by folklore.

The tapire-iauara gives an alarm signal to others of its kind by slapping its long ears against the water, much like a beaver slaps its tail against the water as an alarm. The tapire-iauara is described as carnivorous. It has the sharp teeth of a predator, and is often sighted clutching a bloody caiman. Like the tapir, the tapire-iauara leads a semi-aquatic existence. It tends to flee into the water when threatened, is an excellent swimmer, and seems to feed mostly on fish, caimans and other aquatic prey. It may also eat humans, but these accounts are often flavored with trappings of the supernatural and folklore, so they are less likely to represent the real animal's behavior.

The tapire-iauara is found in the most remote swamps, sometimes also living along sluggish, swampy creeks and in floodplain lakes. The tapire-iauara likes to shelter in aninga groves, stands of a primitive-looking swamp shrub with heart-shaped leaves. Single animals are often sighted, but, if one is threatened, more often appear to defend their comrade. It is very rare to see more than four at once, though.

According to local reports, the tapire-iauara is sometimes hunted, not to eat, but to destroy a pest. The method used is to go to the lake or swamp where the tapire-iauara has been sighted, then build a high platform on top of four long poles that have had their bottom ends sunk into the mud below the water. Some raw fish is prepared and eaten by the man who is to sit on top of the platform. Then he goes and sits on top of the platform in the morning, while at least four hunters wait with loaded guns nearby, because the tapire-iauara may come from any direction, is wary of traps, and is often accompanied by others of its kind.

This traditional hunting technique mixes information from folklore with other information that might represent the real animal. For example, the tapire-iauara is said to be attracted by the raw fish smell on the man's breath, and comes to kill the man (because supernatural creatures in the Amazon often punish those who eat raw meat). However, it seems more likely that the tapire-iauara is either attracted by the guts of the raw fish that were discarded after preparing it, or by the sight of helpless prey (the man) stranded on top of the platform.

In local folklore, the tapire-iauara has the ability to steal people's souls, just like many supernatural creatures from the same region. How can you tell if a person's soul has been stolen? There are several ways. If a person sees the tapire-iauara and faints or freezes in fear until the animal is gone, this is interpreted as soul-stealing. Also, if the person develops symptoms of mental illness or malaria shortly after seeing the animal, this is interpreted as soul-stealing. In local lore, the soul might be restored afterwards on its own, by the use of smelling salts, or it might require the assistance of a shaman. Sometimes the tapire-iauara is said to release a skunk-like stench that causes soul loss. In any case, encountering a large, predatory animal of a species you've never seen before would be more than enough to make many people either freeze momentarily or faint.

If the tapire-iauara is a real animal, what is it? Several possibilities spring to mind. I'll start with those suggestions that are easiest to believe and continue on to the more spectacular possibilities. Since witnesses always see something cat-like (and often specifically jaguar-like) about the tapire-iauara, it might be a big cat. From its appearance, it is obvious that it couldn't be a normal jaguar. It would have to be either a new subspecies of jaguar or a different species of cat altogether. Jaguars do not have solid red fur or long cow-shaped ears, and they are not quite as aquatic in their habits as the tapire-iauara is described. Since the large ears are one of the most constant features of the tapire-iauara reports, it would be hard to exclude them and then declare that all sightings were of real jaguars. Also, the tapire-iauara is regularly sighted in many areas where jaguars have been extinct for 40 years or more.

If there is a red-furred jaguar with big ears and adaptations to an aquatic lifestyle, then it would almost certainly fit the requirements to qualify as a subspecies, at the very least. It would likely qualify as a new species, even if it is descended from jaguar ancestors.

On the other hand, it might be a cat that is entirely unrelated to jaguars. In this case, what could it be? The red or black fur is reminiscent of the jaguarundi, a rare species (also known as the otter-cat) that is found in sporadic patches from the U. S. border to as far south as Argentina. However, this cat is much smaller than a cougar, with a maximum weight of 18 pounds, so it couldn't be anywhere near as big as the tapire-iauara is described. Also, it is thought to eat terrestrial animals much more than fish. There are other problems, too. The big, elongated ears that are such a consistent feature of these reports would eliminate the jaguarundi and any other known cat. As a rule, cats have small ears that are rounded or pointed, not big, drooping ears. Once again, the tapire-iauara is so different that, if the descriptions of it contain any accuracy, it could be a subspecies of the jaguarundi or a new species descended from the jaguarundi, but it could not be a simple case of mistaken sightings of the jaguarundi. This same argument could also be made with cougars, ocelots and any other cat species of South America. If the tapire-iauara is a feline, it seems that it must be a new subspecies at the very least, and in all liklihood a new species.

Since the tapire-iauara is most often compared to jaguars and tapirs, it is also worth asking whether it could be a tapir. The tapir is a primitive variety of odd-toed ungulate that is related to both rhinoceroses and horses. There are four known species, three in South America and Central America, one in Asia. These animals have short trunk-like appendiges for their noses, and in other respects they resemble long-legged pigs. They have four hoof-encased toes on the front feet and three hoof-encased toes on the hind feet, but on the hind feet the central toe is much larger and stronger than the other two.

Tapirs in general fit a number of important characteristics of the tapire-iauara. They would fit with the cow-like ears, the donkey-shaped legs, and the semi-aquatic lifestyle. They would also fit the idea that the tapire-iauara is hoofed. Even the sightings of paws on the front feet and hooves on the back feet would fit, since the tapir's front feet look something like paws unless you look closely, while the hind feet look more like the hoofed animals we are used to, such as horses. The tapire-iauara could easily be a tapir, but once again, if the descriptions have much accuracy, it could not be any known species of tapir. No tapir has a cat-like face, and they are all herbivores. If the tapire-iauara is a new species of tapir, it could be the only predatory tapir in existence, or these meat-eating habits might be an example of the tendency of folklore to make as many mythical creatures as possible into man-eaters. After all, the gorilla of folklore is a ravenous carnivore, even though the real animal only eats plants. The cat-like face presents more problems. All known species of tapir have long, narrow, pointed faces with a short trunk on the end of the nose, the exact opposite of a short-muzzled cat's face. A short-faced tapir would be an odd creature indeed.

If the tapire-iauara is a new species of tapir, it is in exactly the right place. If you asked any biologist where they might expect to discover a new species of tapir, the Amazon rainforest would be it. Not only is it the site of most of the world's discoveries of new land animals, but it is also one of the last great wildernesses and already is known to harbor three species of tapir. In fact, the scientist Dr. Marc van Roosmalen, a noted zoologist, says that he saw a new species of tapir in Brazil while on an expedition during the late 1990s.

The third possibility for what the tapire-iauara could be is the most daring and, if it is true, it probably represents the most important new mammal discovery in history. During millions of years of mammal evolution, there have been two great groups of land predators. The group of predators we are familiar with today is filled with pawed animals that are all related to each other: felines, canines, seals, bears, hyenas, weasels and other members of the order Carnivora. Before these predators came to dominance (but after the older marsupial predators were largely replaced) there was another great order of predators that dominated the landscape. These were the hoofed predators or mesonychids. They paralleled the great families of predators that would later replace them, so many of them looked like hoofed bears, hoofed cats, hoofed wolves, and so on. For thousands of years, hoofed prey animals were pursued largely by hoofed predators. As these animals were out-competed by the pawed predators and gradually replaced, one species of mesonychid refused to comepletely disappear. Looking something like a gigantic hoofed otter, this animal evolved to became more aquatic, ending up as the ancestor to all whales and dolphins. Today, it is thought that whales and dolphins are the last legacy of the once-great family of hoofed predators. Scientists believe that every land form of these animals has died out. But, if by some chance one land species has survived, we would expect to find it in a little-explored region of the world such as the Amazon rainforest.

A mesonychid would fit the tapire-iauara descriptions exactly. There would be none of the twisting that would be required to make it be some species of big cat or tapir. It is also the most exciting possibility, by far. The scientific world would be amazed at the discovery of a new big cat, and it would be mildly excited if there were another species of tapir in the world, but the discovery of a hoofed, predatory relative of whales living in the forests of Brazil would make both scientists and the world extremely excited. It would be an unparralleled oppurtunity for studying an important early part of mammal evolution.

Other aquatic animals that remind people of felines are reported from Patagonia and Guyana. I have not been able to discover if these are supposed to have hooves. These animals are sometimes called "water tigers" (local names for these beasts include yaquaru and maipolina). They are supposed to have yellowish coats without spots, a possible link with the red or red-gold coats of the tapire-iauara. However, these Patagonian "water tigers" are also supposed to have gigantic fang teeth, like saber-toothed cats, a feature I have never seen mentioned in tapire-iauara lore. Other reports of "water tigers" are widespread in South America, and tend to describe animals that sound very much like aquatic saber-toothed cats, though a few reports include tapir-like features.

As far as I have been able to find out, there has never been a scientific expedition to resolve the tapire-iauara question. In the history of cryptozoology, it has always proven unwise to scoff at an animal before it has been investigated. Without serious study done by scientists, it is often impossible to unravel the facts from the folklore, and a perfectly real animal can often seem far more absurd than it actually is. I believe this animal deserves an expedition. If there is a new big cat, tapir, or hoofed predator lurking in the vastness of South America, we need to find it and protect it before deforestation causes it to become extinct.

You can find out more about the Tapire-iauara and/or Mystery Tapirs from the following sources:

Newton, Michael. Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology: A Global Guide to Hidden Animals and Their Pursuers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2005. Pages 32, 165, 204-205, 486, 451, 458, 485-486, 498
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Shuker, Karl. The Beasts That Hide From Man: Seeking the World's Last Undiscovered Animals. New York: Paraview Press, 2003. Page 261, 281

Smith, Nigel. The Enchanted Amazon Rain Forest. Miami: University Press of Florida, 1996. Pages 76-80

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