Mammals (class Mammalia) are a class of vertebrate animals characterized by the presence of sweat glands, including sweat glands modified for milk production, hair, three middle ear bones used in hearing, and a neocortex region in the brain.
All mammals (except for the five species of monotremes) give birth to live young instead of laying eggs. Most mammals also possess specialized teeth, and the largest group of mammals, the placentals, use a placenta during gestation. The mammalian brain regulates endothermic and circulatory systems, including a four-chambered heart.
There are approximately 5,400 species of mammals, ranging in size from the Bumblebee Bat to the Blue Whale, distributed in about 1,200 genera, 153 families, and 29 orders, though this varies by classification scheme.
Most mammals belong to the placental group. The four largest orders within the placental mammals are Rodentia (mice, rats, and other small, gnawing mammals), Chiroptera (bats), Carnivora (dogs, cats, bears, and other mammals that primarily eat meat), and Cetartiodactyla (including numerous herbivore species, such as deer, sheep, goats, and buffalos, plus whales). The human species is also a placental mammal, a member of the order Primates.
Phylogenetically, Mammalia is defined as all descendants of the most recent common ancestor of monotremes (e.g., echidnas and platypuses) and therein mammals (marsupials and placentals). This means that some extinct groups of "mammals" are not members of the crown group Mammalia, even though most of them have all the characteristics that traditionally would have classified them as mammals. These "mammals" are now usually placed in the unranked clade Mammaliaformes.
The mammalian line of descent diverged from the sauropsid line at the end of the Carboniferous period. The sauropsids would evolve into modern-day reptiles and birds, while the synapsid branch led to mammals. The first true mammals appeared in the Jurassic period. Modern mammalian orders appeared in the Palaeocene and Eocene epochs of the Palaeogene period.
However, other features are required when classifying fossils, since soft tissue glands and some other features are not visible in fossils. Paleontologists use a distinguishing feature that is shared by all living mammals (including monotremes), but is not present in any of the early Triassic synapsids: mammals use two bones for hearing that were used for eating by their ancestors. The earliest synapsids had a jaw joint composed of the articular (a small bone at the back of the lower jaw) and the quadrate (a small bone at the back of the upper jaw). Most reptiles and non-mammalian synapsids use this system including lizards, crocodilians, dinosaurs (and their descendants the birds), and therapsids (mammal-like "reptiles"). Mammals have a different jaw joint, however, composed only of the dentary (the lower jaw bone which carries the teeth) and the squamosal (another small skull bone). In mammals the quadrate and articular bones have become the incus and malleus bones in the middle ear. Note: "non-mammalian synapsids" above implies that mammals are a sub-group of synapsids, and that is exactly what cladistics says they are.
Mammals also have a double occipital condyle: they have two knobs at the base of the skull which fit into the topmost neck vertebra, and other vertebrates have a single occipital condyle. Paleontologists use only the jaw joint and middle ear as criteria for identifying fossil mammals, as it would be confusing if they found a fossil that had one feature, but not the other.
Breathing is largely driven by the muscular diaphragm at the bottom of the thorax. Contraction of the diaphragm pulls the bottom of the cavity in which the lung is enclosed downward. Air enters through the oral and nasal cavities; it flows through the larynx and into the trachea, which branches out into bronchi. Relaxation of the diaphragm has the opposite effect, passively recoiling during normal breathing. During exercise, the diaphragm contracts, forcing the air out more quickly and forcefully. The rib cage itself also is able to expand and contract to some degree, through the action of other respiratory and accessory respiratory muscles. As a result, air is sucked into or expelled out of the lungs, always moving down its pressure gradient. This type of lung is known as a bellows lung as it resembles a blacksmith's bellows.
The epidermis is typically ten to thirty cells thick; its main function being to provide a waterproof layer. Its outermost cells are constantly lost; its bottommost cells are constantly dividing and pushing upward. The middle layer, the dermis, is fifteen to forty times thicker than the epidermis. The dermis is made up of many components such as bony structures and blood vessels. The hypodermis is made up of adipose tissue. Its job is to store lipids, and to provide cushioning and insulation. The thickness of this layer varies widely from species to species.
Although mammals and other animals have cilia that superficially may resemble it, no other animals except mammals have hair. It is a definitive characteristic of the order. Some mammals have very little, albeit in obscure parts of their bodies, but nonetheless, careful examination reveals the characteristic. None are known to have hair that naturally is blue or green in color although some cetaceans, along with the mandrills appear to have shades of blue skin. Many mammals are indicated as having blue hair or fur, but in all known cases, it has been found to be a shade of gray. The two-toed sloth and the polar bear may seem to have green fur, but this color is caused by algae growths.
Most mammals give birth to live young (vivipary), but a few, such as the monotremes lay eggs and at least one of them, the platypus, presents a particular sex determination system that in some ways resembles that of birds. Live birth also occurs in some non-mammalian species, such as guppies, snakes, and hammerhead sharks; thus it is not a distinguishing characteristic of mammals.
Mammals have sweat glands, a defining feature present only in mammals. Some of these glands produce milk (in what are called mammary glands), a liquid used by newborns as their primary source of nutrition. The monotremes branched from other mammals early on, and do not have the nipples seen in most mammals, but they do have mammary glands.
Endothermy requires plenty of food energy, so pound for pound mammals eat more food than reptiles. Small insectivorous mammals eat prodigious amounts for their size.
Some types of mammals are solitary except for brief periods when the female is in estrus. Others, however, form social groups. Such groups may be reproductive or defensive, or they may serve both functions. In those cases that have been studied in detail, a more or less strict hierarchy of dominance prevails. Within the social group, the hierarchy may be maintained through physical combat between individuals, but in many cases stereotyped patterns of behaviour evolve to displace actual combat, thereby conserving energy while maintaining the social structure.
A pronounced difference between sexes (sexual dimorphism) is frequently extreme in social mammals. In large part this is because dominant males tend to be those that are largest or best-armed. Dominant males also tend to have priority in mating or may even have exclusive responsibility for mating within a “harem.” Rapid evolution of secondary sexual characteristics, including size, can take place in a species with such a social structure.
A complex behavior termed “play” frequently occurs between siblings, between members of an age class, or between parent and offspring. Play extends the period of maternal training and is especially important in social species, providing an opportunity to learn behaviour appropriate to the maintenance of dominance.
Mammals evolved from four-legged ancestors. They use their limbs to walk, climb, swim, and fly. Some land mammals have toes that produce claws and hooves for climbing and running. Aquatic mammals such as whales and dolphins have fins which evolved from legs.
See also Terrestrial locomotion
Specialization in habitat preference has been accompanied by locomotor adaptations. Terrestrial mammals have a number of modes of progression. The primitive mammalian stock walked plantigrade—that is, with the digits, bones of the midfoot, and parts of the ankle and wrist in contact with the ground. The limbs of ambulatory mammals are typically mobile, capable of considerable rotation.
Mammals modified for running are termed cursorial. The stance of cursorial species may be digitigrade (the complete digits contacting the ground, as in dogs) or unguligrade (only tips of digits contacting the ground, as in horses). In advanced groups limb movement is forward and backward in a single plane.
Saltatory (leaping) locomotion, sometimes called “ricochetal,” has arisen in several unrelated groups (some marsupials, lagomorphs, and several independent lineages of rodents). This mode of locomotion is typically found in mammals living in open habitats. Jumping mammals typically have elongate, plantigrade hind feet, reduced forelimbs, and long tails. Convergent evolution within a given adaptive mode has contributed to the ecological similarity of regional mammalian faunas.
Mammals of several orders have attained great size (elephants, hippopotamuses, and rhinoceroses) and have converged on specializations for a ponderous mode of locomotion referred to as “graviportal.” These animals have no digit reduction and deploy the digits in a circle around the axis of the limb for maximum support, like the pedestal of a column.
See also Scansorial locomotion
Well-adapted arboreal mammals frequently are plantigrade, five-toed, and equipped with highly mobile limbs. Some species, including many New World monkeys, have a prehensile tail, which is used like a fifth hand. Brachiation, or “arm walking,” in which the animal hangs from branches and moves by a series of long swings, is an adaptation seen in gibbons. The primitive opposable anthropoid thumb is reduced as a specialization for this method of locomotion. Tarsiers are highly arboreal primates that have expanded pads on the digits to improve grasping, whereas many other arboreal mammals have claws or well-developed nails.
Sloths travel slowly along branches rather than swinging energetically.
Four mammalian groups are fully aquatic. Sirenians (dugongs and manatees) eat plants. Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) and pinnipeds (seals and walruses) eat krill or fish. The sea otter eats a variety of invertebrates and fish. Some semiaquatic mammals are very similar to their close land-borne relatives (otters, muskrats, and water shrews, for example). Other mammals have undergone profound adaptation for swimming and life at sea. Walruses and seals give birth to and nurse their young on land, but cetaceans are completely helpless out of water. They depend on water for mechanical support and thermal insulation. Buoyed by their aquatic environment, whales have evolved into the largest mammals and indeed the largest animals ever.
See also Aerial locomotion
Bats are the only truly flying mammals. Only with active flight have the resources of the aerial habitat been successfully exploited. Mammals belonging to other groups (colugos, marsupials, rodents) are adapted for gliding. A gliding habit is frequently accompanied by scansorial (climbing) locomotion. Many nongliders, such as tree squirrels, are also scansorial.
The first fully terrestrial vertebrates were amniotes. Like the amphibians they evolved from, they had legs and lungs. Amniotes' eggs, however, had internal membranes which allowed the developing embryo to breathe but kept water in. This allowed amniotes to lay eggs on dry land, while amphibians generally need to lay their eggs in water.
The first amniotes apparently arose in the late Carboniferous. They descended from amphibians, which were numerous at the time, and lived on land already inhabited by insects, other invertebrates, ferns, mosses, and other plants. Within a few million years two important amniote lineages became distinct: the synapsids, from which mammals are descended; and the sauropsids, from which lizards, snakes, crocodilians, dinosaurs and birds are descended. Synapsids have a single hole (temporal fenestra) low on each side of the skull.
Therapsids descended from pelycosaurs in the middle Permian, about 260M years ago, and took over their position as the dominant land vertebrates. They differ from pelycosaurs in several features of the skull and jaws, including: larger temporal fenestrae; incisors which are equal in size. The therapsids went through a series of stages, beginning with animals which were very like their pelycosaur ancestors and ending with the Triassic cynodonts, some of which could easily be mistaken for mammals:
The Permian–Triassic extinction event ended the dominance of the therapsids, and in the early Triassic all the medium to large land animal niches were taken over by archosaurs, which were the ancestors of crocodilians, pterosaurs, dinosaurs and birds. After this "Triassic Takeover" the cynodonts and their descendants could only survive as small, mainly nocturnal insectivores. This may actually have accelerated the evolution of mammals - for example the surviving cynodonts and their descendants had to evolve towards warm-bloodedness because their small bodies would otherwise have lost heat quickly, especially as they were active mainly at night.
The first true mammals appeared in the early Jurassic, over 70 million years after the first therapsids and approximately 30 million years after the first mammaliaformes. Hadrocodium appears to be in the middle of the transition to true mammal status — it had a mammalian jaw joint (formed by the dentary and squamosal bones, but there is some debate about whether its middle ear was fully mammalian.
Unlike other mammals, female monotremes do not have nipples and feed their young by "sweating" milk from patches on their bellies.
The oldest known marsupial is Sinodelphys, found in 125M-year old early Cretaceous shale in China's northeastern Liaoning Province. The fossil is nearly complete and includes tufts of fur and imprints of soft tissues.
The living Eutheria ("true beasts") are all placentals. But the earliest known eutherian, Eomaia, found in China and dated to 125M years ago, has some features which are more like those of marsupials (the surviving metatherians):
It is not certain when placental mammals evolved - the earliest undisputed fossils of placentals come from the early Paleocene, after the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Mammals and near-mammals expanded out of their nocturnal insectivore niche from the mid Jurassic onwards - for example Castorocauda had adaptations for swimming, digging and catching fish.
The traditional view is that: mammals only took over the medium- to large-sized ecological niches in the Cenozoic, after the extinction of the dinosaurs; but then they diversified very quickly; for example the earliest known bat dates from about 50M years ago, only 15M years after the extinction of the dinosaurs.
On the other hand recent molecular phylogenetic studies suggest that most placental orders diverged about 100M to 85M years ago, but that modern families first appeared in the late Eocene and early Miocene But paleontologists object that no placental fossils have been found from before the end of the Cretaceous
During the Cenozoic several groups of mammals appeared which were much larger than their nearest modern equivalents - but none was even close to the size of the largest dinosaurs with similar feeding habits.
It has been suggested that the original function of lactation (milk production) was to keep eggs moist. Much of the argument is based on monotremes (egg-laying mammals):
The earliest clear evidence of hair or fur is in fossils of Castorocauda, from 164M years ago in the mid Jurassic. From 1955 onwards some scientists have interpreted the foramina (passages) in the maxillae (upper jaws) and premaxillae (small bones in front of the maxillae) of cynodonts as channels which supplied blood vessels and nerves to vibrissae (whiskers), and suggested that this was evidence of hair or fur. But foramina do not necessarily show that an animal had vibrissae - for example the modern lizard Tupinambis has foramina which are almost identical to those found in the non-mammalian cynodont Thrinaxodon.
The evolution of erect limbs in mammals is incomplete — living and fossil monotremes have sprawling limbs. In fact some scientists think that the parasagittal (non-sprawling) limb posture is a synapomorphy (distinguishing characteristic) of the Boreosphenida, a group which contains the Theria and therefore includes the last common ancestor of modern marsupial and placentals - and therefore that all earlier mammals had sprawling limbs. Sinodelphys (the earliest known marsupial) and Eomaia (the earliest known eutherian) lived about 125M years ago, so erect limbs must have evolved before then.
It is currently very difficult to be confident when endothermy first appeared in the evolution of mammals. Modern monotremes have a lower body temperature and more variable metabolic rate than marsupials and placentals. So the main question is when a monotreme-like metabolism evolved in mammals. The evidence found so far suggests Triassic cynodonts may have had fairly high metabolic rates, but is not conclusive. In particular it is difficult to see how small animals can maintain a high and stable body temperature without fur, and there is no certain evidence of fur before Castorocauda, about 164M years ago.
George Gaylord Simpson's "Principles of Classification and a Classification of Mammals" (AMNH Bulletin v. 85, 1945) was the original source for the taxonomy listed here. Simpson laid out a systematics of mammal origins and relationships that was universally taught until the end of the 20th century. Since Simpson's classification, the paleontological record has been recalibrated, and the intervening years have seen much debate and progress concerning the theoretical underpinnings of systematization itself, partly through the new concept of cladistics. Though field work gradually made Simpson's classification outdated, it remained the closest thing to an official classification of mammals.
McKenna and Bell, Classification of Mammals: Above the species level, (1997) is the most comprehensive work to date on the systematics, relationships, and occurrences of all mammal taxa, living and extinct, down through the rank of genus. The new McKenna/Bell classification was quickly accepted by paleontologists. The authors work together as paleontologists at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. McKenna inherited the project from Simpson and, with Bell, constructed a completely updated hierarchical system, covering living and extinct taxa that reflects the historical genealogy of Mammalia.
The McKenna/Bell hierarchical listing of all of the terms used for mammal groups above the species includes extinct mammals as well as modern groups, and introduces some fine distinctions such as legions and sublegions (ranks which fall between classes and orders) that are likely to be glossed over by the nonprofessionals.
The published re-classification forms both a comprehensive and authoritative record of approved names and classifications and a list of invalid names.
Extinct groups are represented by a cross (†).
Following molecular DNA sequence analyses, the first divergence was that of the Afrotheria 110–100 million years ago. The Afrotheria proceeded to evolve and diversify in the isolation of the African-Arabian continent. The Xenarthra, isolated in South America, diverged from the Boreoeutheria approximately 100–95 million years ago. According to an alternative view, the Xenarthra has the Afrotheria as closest allies, forming the Atlantogenata as sistergroup to Boreoeutheria. The Boreoeutheria split into the Laurasiatheria and Euarchontoglires between 95 and 85 mya; both of these groups evolved on the northern continent of Laurasia. After tens of millions of years of relative isolation, Africa-Arabia collided with Eurasia, exchanging Afrotheria and Boreoeutheria. The formation of the Isthmus of Panama linked South America and North America, which facilitated the exchange of mammal species in the Great American Interchange. The traditional view that no placental mammals reached Australasia until about 5 million years ago when bats and murine rodents arrived has been challenged by recent evidence and may need to be reassessed. These molecular results are still controversial because they are not reflected by morphological data, and thus not accepted by many systematists. Further there is some indication from Retrotransposon presence/absence data that the traditional Epitheria hypothesis, suggesting Xenarthra as the first divergence, might be true.