The Matses Inventory

By Cooper, Henry S. F., Jr. | Natural History, September 2000 | Go to article overview

The Matses Inventory


Cooper, Henry S. F., Jr., Natural History


In northeastern Peru, Museum mammalogists tap local knowledge to catalog the fauna of the rainforest. By Henry S. F. Cooper Jr.

Tropical rainforests are now disappearing, according to some estimates, at the rate of 65,000 square miles a year-the equivalent of Washington State. "There is a growing idea that we don't know what's in these vanishing areas," said Robert S. Vossan associate curator in the Museum's mammalogy department, when I visited him in his loftlike white office on the fifth floor. Over the past decade, Voss-a lean, animated man in his midforties who talks very fast-has been taking inventory of the mammals at the eastern and western extremities of Amazonia, which is home to the world's largest extant rainforest. The farther west one goes, the more diverse the mammalian fauna becomes, and the reason may be that the soils of Peruvian Amazonia, which were created by alluvium from the Andes, are richer than the leached-out pre-Cambrian soils along the Atlantic seaboard.

Voss, whose specialty is rats, started his inventory in the early 1990s at the low end of the diversity gradient, in a stretch of pristine forest near Paracou, a field station in French Guiana. Because the country is an overseas department of France and because a European Space Agency rocket-launching base is located there, it is wealthier than many of its neighbors and hence there is less pressure to cut down its forests. Nancy B. Simmons, Voss's wife, who is also an associate curator in the mammalogy department and who specializes in bats, was a coinvestigator throughout the project. (The two are known around the Museum as "Rats and Bats.")

In the course of thirty-six weeks' work between 1991 and 1994, Voss and Simmons, using a variety of traps and nets inside a circle of rainforest about four miles in diameter, found 142 species of mammals-more than had ever been found in any comparable habitat and approximately three times the number of mammal species in temperate-zone woodlands in, say, New York or Connecticut. More than half-78 species-were bats, including ghost bats, fishing bats, giant false vampire bats, mammal- and bird-feeding vampire bats, nectar-feeding bats, fruit bats, sucker-winged bats, and free-- tailed bats. The list also included mouse opossums, water opossums, two- and three-toed sloths, giant armadillos, silky anteaters, marmosets, howler monkeys, jaguars, kinkajous, coatimundis, tapir, peccaries, brocket deer, pygmy squirrels, water rats, climbing rats, agoutis, prehensile-tailed porcupines, and many smaller rodents.

In 1998 Voss shifted his research to the high-diversity end of Amazonia, west of the Ucayali River, one of the Amazon's main tributaries. One of the most remote rainforests anywhere, the region is home to the Matses Indians, whom Voss first heard about from an Ohio State University undergraduate, David Fleck. In the mid-1990s Fleck had encountered a group of Matses while collecting marsupials at a botanical field station in the area. He had returned with the Indians to their village, Nuevo San Juan, situated between the Ucayali and Yavari Rivers, and had been adopted by a Matses family. Eventually he decided to do his master's thesis on the region's animals, and having read a paper coauthored by Voss about conducting rainforest inventories, Fleck asked him for help.

"We put together a couple of crates of equipment, sent them off, and then forgot about David," Voss says. "It wasn't until a year later that we began getting crates of specimens-fabulous material, just incredible stuff. Most people don't have the opportunity to collect things like this any more. But David was working with the Indians, and most important, he came back speaking Matses."

In 1998 Voss joined Fleck at Nuevo San Juan, where the two men collaborated with their Matses hosts in surveying the local mammalian fauna. In the course of just one season, Voss identified 150 mammal species, and he suspects that number will grow to 200. …

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