The amniotes—reptiles, birds, and mammals—are distinguished from amphibians by their terrestrially adapted (shelled) egg and an embryo protected by amniotic membranes. The evolution of amniotic membranes meant that the embryos of amniotes could develop within an aquatic environment inside the egg. This led to less dependence on a water environment for development and allowed the amniotes to invade drier areas. This was a significant evolutionary change that distinguished them from amphibians, which were restricted to moist environments due to their shell-less eggs. Although the shells of various amniotic species vary significantly, they all allow retention of water. The membranes of the amniotic egg also allowed gas exchange and sequestering of wastes within the enclosure of an eggshell. The shells of bird eggs are composed of calcium carbonate and are hard and brittle, but possess pores for gas and water exchange. The shells of reptile eggs are more leathery and pliable. Most mammals do not lay eggs; however, even with internal gestation, amniotic membranes are still present.
In the past, the most common division of amniotes has been into classes Mammalia, Reptilia, and Aves. Birds are descended, however, from dinosaurs, so this classical scheme results in groups that are not true clades. We will discuss birds as a group distinct from reptiles with the understanding that this does not reflect evolutionary history.