Amazon mammals

Grey woolly monkey (Lagothrix cana)
© Zig Koch

Up in the trees and under the water

Pink dolphins, jaguars, the slow-moving sloths, armour-plated armadillos and the peculiar anteaters, all have their place in different parts of the Amazon - along with about 420 other mammals that are found there1. But the majority, it turns out, are rodents and bats.

What mammals will you find in the region?

Jaguar (Panthera onca)2

Revered and feared, the jaguar is the biggest cat of the American continent. Despite a wide distribution in rainforests, flooded swamp areas, grasslands, thorn scrub woodlands and dry deciduous forests, it is scattered in these places and generally decreasing in numbers outside of the Amazon rainforest, its main stronghold.

The jaguar's shape and agility makes it particularly well adapted to swimming, climbing and crawling, not to mention sprinting at incredible speeds.

Its strength allows it to capture a variety of species. Large-sized ungulates such as deer are preferred, but peccaries and caimans also can be part of the menu. Its jaws and teeth are so powerful, that it can literally bite through the shell of a turtle.

When the Mayan and Inca civilizations ruled, the jaguar was revered as a divine creature. Aztecs even fed the hearts of sacrificed victims to them. In the Amazon, it was believed that the jaguar’s eyes have a connection to the spirit world.3

Today, things have changed. Persecution, degradation of the jaguar's habitat, and decrease in its prey are thought to have reduced the species population to less than 50,000 mature breeding individuals in the wild.

While commercial hunting and trapping of jaguars for their pelts has declined drastically since the mid-1970's through public information campaigns and trade controls, the species is still a victim of ranchers, who kill it because it preys on cattle.

The jaguar is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

	© WWF / Michel GUNTHER
Panthera onca Jaguar, Brazil.
© WWF / Michel GUNTHER

Tapir (Tapirus terrestris)4

Another great swimming mammal, the tapir is found in lowland tropical and subtropical moist forests, with a preference for moist, wet or seasonally inundated areas. The combined impacts of deforestation, hunting and competition from domestic livestock have led to a reduction of its population.

In addition to its swimming abilities, the tapir can reach fairly quick speeds on land. Like many tropical mammals, tapirs are mostly active at night. Adults can reach about 2 m and over 227 kg. Tapirs eat leaves, fruit, grass and aquatic plants.

Deforestation is an ongoing threat in several places where the species is found. Hunting may also reduce the population even further.

The tapir is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis)

The world's largest otter is found throughout the Amazon River Basin, where the combined impacts of habitat loss and pollution pose risks to the long-term survival of the species.

The giant otter is almost 1.5 m long, with an additional metre provided by its tail. Its webbed feet, semi-flattened tail and reddish-brown, water-repellent fur make it particularly well-suited to swimming. It is found in groups of 3 to 9 individuals, foraging in tributaries (especially around oxbow lakes), and in slow-moving rivers, lakes and swamps. The giant otter feeds on fish, mammals, birds and other vertebrates.

While otter fur trade has decreased, illegal hunting is still an ongoing problem. In addition, habitat loss and pollution from mining activities are a concern. Otters may also be victims of fishing nets in rivers.

Giant otters are classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species5, and are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Pteronura brasiliensis Giant otter, Manu National Park, Peru.
1Da Silva et al. 2005. The Fate of the Amazonian Areas of Endemism. Conservation Biology, 19 (3), 689-694
2Cat Specialist Group 2002. Panthera onca. In: IUCN 2004. 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed 06 October 2005.
3ThinkQuest. Animals of the Amazon. Accessed: 06/10/05
4Downer, C. & Castellanos, A. 2002. Tapirus terrestris. In: IUCN 2004. 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed: 06 October 2005.
5Groenendijk, J., Hajek, F. & Schenck, C. 2004. Pteronura brasiliensis. In: IUCN 2004. 2004 IUCN Red. List of Threatened Species. Accessed 11 October 2005.

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