Keystone mammal species of the Amazon rainforest

Last month, we published a blog post about why Ecuador, despite being so small, is considered one of the few megadiverse countries in the world (you can read it here). So in this post, we’re going to delve a little deeper into this subject and focus on some of the endemic animal species that belong to the ecosystem where our project is located; that is, the Amazon rainforest.

Specifically, we’re going to tell you about some of the native Amazonian mammals. But why are these animals important? They are part of the ecological structure of their habitats and they perform important environmental services. In addition, they are a fundamental component of the ancestral culture of the region’s native peoples.

Traditionally, the Kichwa people have hunted the small and large mammals that visit their lands; some of these are the South American tapir, the black agouti, the lowland or spotted paca and the Southern naked-tailed armadillo. However, due to deforestation and environmental destruction, as well as commercial over-hunting, these animals are now increasingly difficult to find.

South American tapir (Tapirus terrestris)

The South American tapir (Tapirus terrestris) is the largest native land mammal in the Amazon: it’s approximately 1.7 to 2.5 meters long and can weigh up to 300 kilos. It inhabits the tropical rainforests of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, the Guianas, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. It’s in danger of extinction due to the destruction of its habitat and commercial over-hunting.

Its hair is gray to dark brown, short, and rough. It feeds mostly on fruits, branches, and leaves. It provides the important ecological service of scattering seeds. Moreover, it seems that there are plants so adapted to coexistence with this species, that their seeds are only spread thanks to the South American tapir.

They are solitary animals, only the female lives with her offspring. They have a particularly long gestation period: 13 to 14 months. Additionally, the average time between the birth of an offspring and the possibility of carrying the next one is 14 months. This long reproductive cycle makes the species vulnerable to hunting, as its population recovery rate is extremely slow.

Black agouti (Dasyprocta fuliginosa)

The black agouti (Dasyprocta fuliginosa), also known as ‘ñeque’ or ‘picure’, is a rodent endemic to the Amazon rainforests of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. It’s medium-sized; it measures approximately 45 to 75 centimeters long, and it weighs about 4 to 6 kilos.

As its name suggests, its hair is mostly black or dark brown, although the hair is white on its neck and abdomen, as well as on the tips of the hair on its back. In addition, the hair on its back is longer and forms a kind of crest. It feeds mainly on fruits, nuts, and seeds, and also performs the important ecological service of seed dispersal.

Despite the fact that the black agouti isn’t in danger of extinction, and that, in certain areas of the Amazon, it’s still abundant, in many other places - as is the case with Mushullakta, for example – it can hardly be found anymore. This is due, on the one hand, to the destruction of its habitat, and on the other, to the fact that it’s been extensively hunted.

Lowland or spotted paca (Cuniculus paca)

The lowland or spotted paca (Cuniculus paca) is also known by many other names: ‘guartinaja’, ‘chilo’, ‘guagu molon’, ‘goruga’, ‘majaz’ and ‘tepezcuintle’. This great variety of names is due to the fact that it has a wide distribution area: from southern Mexico to northern Paraguay and Argentina, and, in each location, it has received a local name, generally derived from the languages of the native peoples. Despite the fact that the lowland paca can be found over a much wider area than the black agouti, it’s categorized as an almost threatened species, because it has suffered local extinctions due to the destruction of its habitat.

It’s a large nocturnal rodent: it’s larger than its cousin the black agouti: it can grow to be approximately 60 to 80 centimeters long and it can weigh around 6 to 12 kilos. The lowland paca’s color is also similar to that of the black agouti; the main difference is that the lowland paca’s hair is mostly brown, and it has four horizontal lines of little white spots on each side of its abdomen. In addition, its hair is short, thick, and rough. It eats mostly fruits and leaves, and it also performs the important ecological service of dispersing seeds.

Southern naked-tailed armadillo (Cabassous unicinctus)

The southern naked-tailed armadillo (Cabassous unicinctus) can be found in the Amazon region of Venezuela, the Guianas, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. They are diurnal animals, belonging to the cingulate order of mammals, which are native to the Americas. They are medium-sized: measuring approximately 40 centimeters and weighing about 3 to 4 kilos.

Like all cingulates, it's shell covers its back; in its case, it’s gray to brown and the edges are yellowish. This shell is formed by long mobile almost-square plates, which form about 10 to 13 transversal bands. As can be inferred from its name, the tail isn't covered by this armor: it's “naked”.

It feeds mostly on ants and termites. With its sharp front claws, it digs around the roots of plants and trees, looking for insect colonies. Once it finds them, it extracts its prey by inserting its long, sticky tongue into the tunnel it has just dug.

The cultural-gastronomic importance of

these native mammals

For the Kichwa people of the Amazon rainforest, the meat of all these animals is very appetizing, and is a central part of their traditional and ancestral cuisine. Tapir meat, for example, is quite rich in fat, which makes it difficult to digest; however, they smoke it and use it in stews and soups. The black agouti is used to prepare another very typical dish: black agouti catu (soup). Lowland paca meat, on the other hand, is even more appetizing than agouti meat, and is used in a few typical dishes: the best known is paca stew. Armadillo meat is used to make a typical broth, which is seasoned with chilies, bay leaves, vinegar, cumin, oregano, and black pepper.

The fact that these animals are in danger of extinction, or on their way there, is worrying —not just because of all that the loss of an endemic species implies at an environmental level— but because these species are an intrinsic part of the ancestral culture of the Kichwa people of the Amazon. Today, these animals are no longer found as frequently as they once were, due to the destruction of their habitats and excessive commercial hunting. The best way to reverse this trend is by conserving the remaining old-growth forests and by restoring the forests that have been cut down. The importance of restoration and conservation work is not just environmental, it's also cultural.


Brito, J., Camacho, M. A., Romero, V. Vallejo, A. F. (editors). Mammals of Ecuador. Version 2018.0. Museum of Zoology, Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador:

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