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The mammals are the class of vertebrate animals primarily characterized by the presence of mammary glands, which in females produce milk for the nourishment of young; the presence of hair or fur; and which have endothermic or "warm-blooded" bodies. The brain regulates endothermic and circulatory systems, including a four-chambered heart. Mammals encompass some 5500 species, distributed in about 1200 genera, 152 families and up to 46 orders, though this varies depending on the classification scheme adopted.

Phylogenetically, Mammalia is defined as all of the descendants of the last common ancestor of monotremes (e.g., echidnas) and therian mammals (placentals and marsupials).



While most mammals give birth to live young, there are a few mammals (the monotremes) that lay eggs. Live birth also occurs in a variety of non-mammalian species, such as guppies and hammerhead sharks; thus it is not a distinguishing characteristic of mammals. Birds are also endothermic.

While monotremes do not have nipples, they do have mammary glands, meaning that they meet all conditions for inclusion in the class Mammalia. It should be noted that the current trend in taxonomy is to emphasize common ancestry; the diagnostic characteristics are useful for identifying this ancestry, but if, for example, a cetacean were found that had no hair at all, it would still be classified as a mammal.

Mammals have three bones in each ear and one (the dentary) on each side of the lower jaw; all other vertebrates with ears have one bone (the stapes) in the ear and at least three on each side of the jaw. A group of therapsids called cynodonts had three bones in the jaw, but the main jaw joint was the dentary and the other bones conducted sound. The extra jaw bones of other vertebrates are thought to be homologous with the malleus and incus of the mammal ear.

Mammals have integumentary systems made up of three layers: the outermost epidermis, the dermis, and the hypodermis.

All mammalian brains possess a neocortex. This brain region is unique to mammals.

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.

Most mammals are terrestrial, but a number are aquatic, including dolphins and whales, which are the largest of all animals. True flight has evolved only once in mammals, the bats; mammals such as flying squirrels and flying lemurs are actually gliding animals.


Mammals belong among the amniotes, and in particular to a group called the synapsids, distinguished by the shape of their skulls, in particular the presence of a single hole where jaw muscles attach, called temporal fenestra. In comparision, dinosaurs, birds, and most reptiles are diapsids, with two temporal fenestrae; and turtles, with no temporal fenestra, are anapsids.

From synapsids came the first mammal precursors, therapsids, and more specifically the eucynodonts, 220 million years ago (mya) during the Triassic period.

Pre-mammalian ears began evolving in the late Permian to early Triassic to their current state, as three tiny bones (incus, malleus, and stapes) inside the skull; accompanied by the transformation of the lower jaw into a single bone. Other animals, including reptiles and pre-mammalian synapsids and therapsids, have several bones in the lower jaw, some of which are used for hearing; and a single ear-bone in the skull, the stapes. This transition is evidence of mammalian evolution from reptilian beginnings: from a single ear bone, and several lower jaw bones (for example the sailback pelycosaur, Dimetrodon) to progressively smaller "hearing jaw bones" (for example the cynodont, Probainognathus), and finally (possibly with Morganucodon, but definitely with Hadrocodium ), true mammals with three ear bones in the skull and a single lower jaw bone. Hence pelycosaurs and cynodonts are sometimes called "mammal-like reptiles", though this is strictly incorrect since in modern parlance these two are not reptiles, but rather synapsids.

During the Mesozoic Period mammals diversified into four main groups: multituberculates, monotremes, marsupials, and placentals. Multituberculates went extinct during the Oligocene, about 30 million years ago, but the three other mammal groups are all represented today. Most early mammals remained small and shrew-like throughout the Mesozoic, but rapidly developed into larger more diverse forms following the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event 65 mya.

The names "Prototheria", "Metatheria" and "Eutheria" expressed the theory that Placentalia were descendants of Marsupialia, which were in turn descendants of Monotremata, but this theory has been refuted. However, Eutheria and Metatheria are often used in paleontology, especially with regards to mammals of the Mesozoic.

Mammal evolutionary progression is below:

In the Mesozoic

Most early mammals were small shrew-like animals that fed on insects. However, in January 2005 the discovery was reported of two fossils of Repenomamus around 130 million years old, one more than a metre in length, the other having remains of a baby dinosaur in its stomach (Nature, Jan. 15, 2005 [1].) The earliest mammals include:

  • Eozostrodon : Triassic and Jurassic
  • Deltatheridium : Cretaceous
  • Jeholodens : mid-Cretaceous
  • Megazostrodon : late Triassic and early Jurassic
  • Triconodont : Triassic to Cretaceous
  • Zalambdalestes : late Cretaceous

Although mammals existed alongside the dinosaurs, mammals only began to dominate after the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 65 mya, in the Cenozoic.

In the Paleocene

During the next 8 million years, the Paleocene period (64–58 mya), mammals exploded into the ecological niches left by the extinction of the dinosaurs. Small rodent-like mammals still dominated, but medium and larger-sized mammals evolved.


Main article: Mammal classification

George Gaylord Simpson's classic "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 1945 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.

Standardized textbook classification

A somewhat standardized classification system has been adopted by most current mammalogy classroom textbooks. The following taxonomy of extant and recently extinct mammals is taken from Vaughan et al. (2000).

Class Mammalia

McKenna/Bell classification

In 1997, the mammals were comprehensively revised by Malcolm C. McKenna and Susan K. Bell, which has resulted in the "McKenna/Bell classification".

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 layman.

The published re-classification forms both a comprehensive and authoritative record of approved names and classifications and a list of invalid names.

Click on the highlighted link for a table comparing the traditional and the new McKenna/Bell classifications of mammals

Extinct groups are represented by †.

Class Mammalia

Molecular classification of mammals

Molecular studies based on DNA analysis have suggested new relationships among mammal families over the last few years. The most recent classification systems based on molecular studies have proposed four groups or lineages of placental mammals. Molecular clocks suggest that these clades diverged from early common ancestors in the Cretaceous, but fossils have not been found to corroborate this hypothesis.

The first divergence was that of the Afrotheria 110–100 mya. 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 mya. 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, and the formation of the Isthmus of Panama linked South America and North America, facilitating the distribution of mammals seen today. 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. It should however be noted that these molecular results are still controversial because they are not reflected by morphological data and thus not accepted by many systematists.

Classification system used in related articles

In light of all the options available, the following classification system has been adopted for use in related articles.

Class Mammalia


  • McKenna, Malcolm C., and Bell, Susan K. 1997. Classification of Mammals Above the Species Level. Columbia University Press, New York, 631 pp. ISBN 0-231-11013-8
  • Nowak, Ronald M. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World, 6th edition. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1936 pp. ISBN 0-801-85789-9
  • Simpson, George Gaylord. 1945. "The principles of classification and a classification of mammals". Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 85:1–350.
  • Springer, Mark S., Michael J. Stanhope, Ole Madsen, and Wilfried W. de Jong. 2004. "Molecules consolidate the placental mammal tree". Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 19:430–438. (pdf version)
  • Vaughan, Terry A., James M. Ryan, and Nicholas J. Capzaplewski. 2000. Mammalogy: Fourth Edition. Saunders College Publishing, 565 pp. ISBN 0-030-25034-X (Brooks Cole, 1999)
  • Wilson, Don E., and Deeann M. Reeder (eds). 1993. Mammal Species of the World. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1206 pp. ISBN 1-560-98217-9

See also

External link

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