Information to guide decision making is especially urgent in human dominated landscapes in the tropics, where urban and agricultural frontiers are still expanding in an unplanned manner. Nevertheless, most studies that have investigated the influence of landscape structure on species distribution have not considered the heterogeneity of altered habitats of the matrix, which is usually high in human dominated landscapes. Using the distribution of small mammals in forest remnants and in the four main altered habitats in an Atlantic forest landscape, we investigated 1) how explanatory power of models describing species distribution in forest remnants varies between landscape structure variables that do or do not incorporate matrix quality and 2) the importance of spatial scale for analyzing the influence of landscape structure. We used standardized sampling in remnants and altered habitats to generate two indices of habitat quality, corresponding to the abundance and to the occurrence of small mammals. For each remnant, we calculated habitat quantity and connectivity in different spatial scales, considering or not the quality of surrounding habitats. The incorporation of matrix quality increased model explanatory power across all spatial scales for half the species that occurred in the matrix, but only when taking into account the distance between habitat patches (connectivity). These connectivity models were also less affected by spatial scale than habitat quantity models. The few consistent responses to the variation in spatial scales indicate that despite their small size, small mammals perceive landscape features at large spatial scales. Matrix quality index corresponding to species occurrence presented a better or similar performance compared to that of species abundance. Results indicate the importance of the matrix for the dynamics of fragmented landscapes and suggest that relatively simple indices can improve our understanding of species distribution, and could be applied in modeling, monitoring and managing complex tropical landscapes.