At 34, Audubon Zoo’s lowland tapir’s not far from setting a record

Longtime Audubon Zoo resident Watermelon, the oldest lowland tapir living in captivity in North America, celebrated his 34th birthday Thursday — just one day early.

Zoo employees gathered in Watermelon’s enclosure, where he lives with his daughter Daphne, for a slice of carrot cake with mashed-potato frosting.

When Watermelon was born in 1979, he was striped with distinctive camouflage markings, and looked as all tapir calves do, like a beige and brown-colored watermelon.

The 400-pound creature munched his cake delicately under his giant protruding nose while Daphne hammed it up for the cameras — showing off her large teeth and lifting her odd snout up into the air. The nose and upper lip of the tapir are joined into a flexible snout similar to an elephant’s trunk.

In captivity and in the wild, tapirs typically have a lifespan of about 25 to 30 years. As far as Zoo Curator Lee Schoen knows, the oldest lowland tapir in captivity lived to be 35 years old, leaving Watermelon just a few years shy of setting a record.

Watermelon has led a full life as the father of about a dozen tapir calves. Daphne is the only one who stayed at home, while Watermelon’s other progeny are spread across many zoos — including one daughter who lives in Europe.

But in terms of family life, Schoen said that lowland tapirs tend to be solitary in the wild, and the males do not contribute to the care of their babies.

The animals have been around for about 35 million years, and have changed very little in appearance. The lowland tapir is found throughout most of South America. They can grow up to 6 feet long and weigh 550 pounds. They also live in parts of Mexico, Central America and Asia, but fossils of tapir ancestors have been found on every continent except Antarctica, giving some scientists evidence for the existence of a supercontinent. In Belize, April, a Baird’s tapir, also called a mountain cow, is the national animal, and her birthday is celebrated as a national event.

While somewhat hog-like in appearance, the tapir is more closely related a horse or rhinoceros. In Thailand, the word for tapir, P’som-sett, means “mixture is finished,” referring to the belief that the tapir was created from leftover parts of other animals.

Though some may not judge the aardvark-nosed animal as particularly cute, Schoen wrote in an email that “Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. I know all the folks that take care of Watermelon think he is very handsome. Definitely cuter than a squid or a naked mole rat.”