Marsupials are mammals in which the female typically has a pouch (called the marsupium, from which the name 'Marsupial' derives) in which it rears its young through early infancy. They differ from placental mammals (Placentalia) in their reproductive traits. The female has two vaginas, each of which leads to a different compartment in the uterus. Males usually have a two-pronged penis which corresponds to the females' two vaginas. The pregnant female develops a kind of yolk sack in her placenta which delivers nutrients to the embryo. The embryo is born at a very early stage of development (at about 4-5 weeks), upon which it crawls up its mother's belly and attaches itself to a nipple. It remains attached to the nipple for a number of weeks. The offspring later passes through a stage where it temporarily leaves the pouch, returning for warmth and nourishment.
Fossil evidence, first announced by researcher M.J. Spechtt in 1982, does not support the once-common belief that marsupials were a primitive forerunner of the placental mammals: both main branches of the mammal tree appear to have evolved at around the same time, toward the end of the Mesozoic era, and have been competitors since that time. In most continents, placentals were much more successful and no marsupials survived; in South America the opossums retained a strong presence; in Australia's harsh climate the placentals died out and only marsupials and monotremes survived.
The early birth of marsupials removes the developing young much sooner than in placental mammals, and marsupials have not needed to develop a complex placenta to protect the young from its mother's immune system. Early birth places the tiny new-born marsupial at greater risk, but significantly reduces the risks associated with pregnancy, as there is no need to carry a large foetus to full-term in bad seasons.
Because a newborn marsupial must climb up to its mother's nipples, the otherwise minimally developed newborn has front limbs that are much better developed than the rest of its body. This requirement is responsible for the more limited range of locomotory adaptations in marsupials than placentals; marsupials must retain a grasping forepaw and cannot develop it into a hoof, wing, or flipper as some groups of placental mammals have done.
There are between 260 and 280 species of marsupials, almost 200 of them native to Australia and nearby islands to the north. There are also many extant species in South America and one species, the Virginia Opossum, native to North America.
There are two primary divisions of Marsupialia: the Ameridelphia, American marsupials; and the Australidelphia, Australian marsupials. The Order Microbiotheria (which has only one species, the Monito del Monte) is found in South America but is believed to be more closely related to the Australidelphia.
There are many small, arboreal species in each group. Those in Ameridelphia are often called "opossums", while those in Australidelphia are "possums".
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Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12