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6 April, 2016 - 17:26

Mammals are vertebrates that have hair and mammary glands used to provide nutrition for their young. Certain features of the jaw, skeleton, skin, and internal anatomy are also unique to mammals. The presence of hair is one of the key characteristics of a mammal. Although it is not very extensive in some groups, such as whales, hair has many important functions for mammals. Mammals are endothermic, and hair provides insulation by trapping a layer of air close to the body to retain metabolic heat. Hair also serves as a sensory mechanism through specialized hairs called vibrissae, better known as whiskers. These attach to nerves that transmit touch information, which is particularly useful to nocturnal or burrowing mammals. Hair can also provide protective coloration.

Mammalian skin includes secretory glands with various functions. Sebaceous glands produce a lipid mixture called sebum that is secreted onto the hair and skin for water resistance and lubrication. Sebaceous glands are located over most of the body. Sudoriferous glands produce sweat and scent, which function in thermoregulation and communication, respectively. Mammary glands produce milk that is used to feed newborns. While male monotremes and eutherians possess mammary glands, male marsupials do not.

The skeletal system of mammals possesses unique features that differentiate them from other vertebrates. Most mammals have heterodontteeth, meaning they have different types and shapes of teeth that allow them to feed on different kinds of foods. These different types of teeth include the incisors, the canines, premolars, and molars. The first two types are for cutting and tearing, whereas the latter two types are for crushing and grinding. Different groups have different proportions of each type, depending on their diet.

Most mammals are also diphyodonts, meaning they have two sets of teeth in their lifetime: deciduous or “baby” teeth, and permanent teeth. In other vertebrates, the teeth can be replaced throughout life.

Modern mammals are divided into three broad groups: monotremes, marsupials, and eutherians (or placental mammals). The eutherians, or placental mammals, and the marsupials collectively are called therian mammals, whereas monotremes are called metatherians.

There are three living species of monotremes: the platypus and two species of echidnas, or spiny anteaters (Figure 15.45). The platypus and one species of echidna are found in Australia, whereas the other species of echidna is found in New Guinea. Monotremes are unique among mammals, as they lay leathery eggs, similar to those of reptiles, rather than giving birth to live young. However, the eggs are retained within the mother’s reproductive tract until they are almost ready to hatch. Once the young hatch, the female begins to secrete milk from pores in a ridge of mammary tissue along the ventral side of her body. Like other mammals, monotremes are endothermic but regulate body temperatures somewhat lower (90 °F, 32 °C) than placental mammals do (98 °F, 37 °C). Like reptiles, monotremes have one posterior opening for urinary, fecal, and reproductive products, rather than three separate openings like placental mammals do. Adult monotremes lack teeth.

Figure 15.45 The platypus (left), a monotreme, possesses a leathery beak and lays eggs rather than giving birth to live young. An echidna, another monotreme, is shown in the right photo.

Marsupials are found primarily in Australia and nearby islands, although about 100 species of opossums and a few species of two other families are found in the Americas. Australian marsupials number over 230 species and include the kangaroo, koala, bandicoot, and Tasmanian devil (Figure 15.46). Most species of marsupials possess a pouch in which the young reside after birth, receiving milk and continuing to develop. Before birth, marsupials have a less complex placental connection, and the young are born much less developed than in placental mammals.

Figure 15.46 The Tasmanian devil is one of several marsupials native to Australia. (credit: Wayne McLean

Eutherians are the most widespread of the mammals, occurring throughout the world. There are several groups of eutherians, including Insectivora, the insect eaters; Edentata, the toothless anteaters; Rodentia, the rodents; Chiroptera, the bats; Cetacea, the aquatic mammals including whales; Carnivora, carnivorous mammals including dogs, cats, and bears; and Primates, which includes humans. Eutherian mammals are sometimes called placental mammals, because all species have a complex placenta that connects a fetus to the mother, allowing for gas, fluid, waste, and nutrient exchange. While other mammals may possess a less complex placenta or briefly have a placenta, all eutherians have a complex placenta during gestation.