Temporal range: Upper Triassic–Recent
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Mammals are the group of vertebrate animals which form the class Mammalia. They have fur and a very precise kind of temperature regulation. The females bear live young, and produce milk for the young. Parental care of the young is universal among mammals, and it is essential because live birth limits the number of offspring.
Most marsupial and eutherian mammals have a reproductive cycle known as the oestrous cycle (U.S: estrous cycle). Females are sexually active only during the oestrous stage, when they are 'on heat' for a few days each month. If an ovum is not fertilised, the endometrium (uterus lining) is resorbed. Oestrus cycles may occur once or twice a year, or many times a year. Each group of mammals has its own frequency.
Humans and primates, are quite different. They have a menstrual cycle. In this case, females are sexually receptive at any time, but only fertile when an ovum is released from an ovary. In this case, the endometrium (if not needed for an fertilised egg) is discarded. The endometrium is shed, and takes with it a certain amount of blood. In this system, eggs are released from the ovaries mostly in the middle of the cycle, away from the menstrual period. This ovulation is 'concealed', meaning, it is not obvious when it occurs. This process, so it is thought, tends to keep the male and female together, which is unusual in mammals with the oestrous cycle.
One diagnostic feature is the lower jaw which, unlike earlier forms, is composed of a single bone, the dentary. This is one feature which can be seen in fossils, or at least those which are complete enough to have the lower jaw. Mammals have three little bones in their inner ear, the ear ossicles. The ear ossicles are bones which were, long ago, part of the lower jaw in early proto-mammals.
There are quite a number of other features, particularly in the skull and limbs, so that it is usually possible identify and describe a mammal from its skeleton alone.
Neocortex and behaviour
Another diagnostic feature is the neocortex of the brain, which no other vertebrate has. This is involved in the kind of flexible behaviour and learning typical of mammals. Reptiles and birds have much of their behaviour controlled by "inherited behaviour chains", which roughly translates as "instincts". Almost all animals can do some learning, but mammals do far more than other vertebrates. Their behaviour is much more flexible than lizards, for example, and that is made possible by their neocortex.
Other things in the life of mammals seem to be connected with this flexibility and learning. Play is a kind of early learning period in which, according to one theory, mammals develop skills which they will need in life. All mammalian young play, and this is very obvious in the more intelligent mammals (primates, cats).
The emotions of mammals are very noticeable, and rather similar to ours. It is possible, and quite common, for humans to have a friendly relationship with another mammal. It is quite impossible for a human to have any kind of relationship with a snake or a gecko (for example). This is because the reptile simply does not have the same basic emotions as a human.
There are about 50 characters which are typical of mammals, and some of the most important are discussed above. A few more examples will make it clear that mammals are very different from reptiles and birds:
- Sweat glands
- Tooth replacement: two sets, and no continuous replacement. Enamel on the tooth surface. Reptile teeth all alike; mammal teeth follow a pattern (incisors, canines, premolars and molars)
- Occipital condyles. Two knobs at the base of the skull fit into the topmost neck vertebra; most tetrapods, in contrast, have only one such knob
- Outlet for foodwaste separate from urinogenital outlet. Reptiles and birds have a common cloaca at the rear
- Mammals excrete urea; reptiles and birds excrete uric acid
- Colour vision is defective or absent in most mammals (primates are an exception)
- In reptiles and birds the blood vessel which carries oxygenated blood from the left ventricle of the heart lies on the right side of the body; but in mammals it lies on the left side.
- There are many features of the skeleton that mammals share
Almost all mammals give birth to live young. There are only two mammals that lay eggs, called monotremes, the duck-billed platypus Ornithorhynchus, and the spiny anteater Echidna, with four species. All are confined to Australia and New Guinea, and are the sole survivors of an earlier group of mammals. However, like other mammals, they feed milk to their young, and protect and look after them.
Modes of life
In terms of number of species mammals, with 5488 species, are not the most successful vertebrates. Birds, with about 10,000 species have nearly twice as many, and reptiles have just as many as birds. Fish have even more species. There are 27,000 species of fish, of which nearly 26,000 are bony fish.
Despite this, many zoologists do regard mammals as a successful group of animals. One reason is that they are successful in all habitats on Earth. In the air, in the water, in forests, in the colder regions of the world, and above all on grasslands, where they are outstandingly successful.
In the air, the bats (Chiroptera) are the mammalian order with the most species. They 'own' the nighttime, since birds are largely diurnal (daytime) animals. Bats are hugely successful, mostly as nighttime predators of insects.
The terrestrial mammals are fewer in number of species than lizards, but they are huge in individual numbers, and far more important in the life of the terrestrial biomes. Their ability to move from place to place and adapt has made them a most effective group. Many mammals live in cold places. These mammals have thick hair or blubber to keep them warm. Others may live in rainforests. On land the rodents (rats, mice) are hugely successful, more common in numbers than any other mammals. Large mammals on land have been hunted to extinction in some parts of the world, but the ones which remain are now better protected.
Last, but certainly not least, are the primates. Their natural habitat, with few exceptions, are the forests. Most live in the trees, with hands that grasp, good colour vision, and intelligence. In the Pliocene period some moved out onto the savannahs as grassland replaced forests. Mankind is the result of this shift into the savannahs.
The evolutionary relationships among land vertebrates is as follows:
- Tetrapoda (land vertebrates)
Standardized textbook classification
A somewhat standardized classification system has been adopted by most current mammalogy classroom textbooks. It is based on living animals. The following taxonomy of extant and recently extinct mammals is from Vaughan et al. 2000.
- Subclass Prototheria: monotremes: platypuses and echidnas
- Subclass Theria: live-bearing mammals
List of orders
Mammals can be divided in a number of orders:
- Monotremes (monotremata)
- Marsupials (marsupialia)
- Superorder Xenarthra
- Superorder Afrotheria
- Order Proboscidea
- Superorder Laurasiatheria
- Superorder Euarchontoglires
Due to the presence of epipubic bones, non-placental mammals cannot expand their abdomen, being thus forced to give birth to (or lay eggs that hatch into) fetus-like larvae. Echidna "puggle" (a) compared to various "joeys": Virginia opossum (b), Gray short-tailed opossum (c), Eastern quoll (d), Koala (e), Brushtail possum (f) and Southern brown bandicoot (g).
Gibbons are very good brachiators because their elongated limbs enable them to easily swing and grasp on to branches.
Goat kids stay with their mother until they are weaned.
Mammal Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.