Fossil range: Late Triassic - Recent
Anathana ellioti
Madras Treeshrew (Anathana ellioti)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
(unranked) Mammaliaformes
Class: Mammalia
Linnaeus, 1758

The mammals are the class of vertebrate animals characterized by the production of milk in females for the nourishment of young, from mammary glands present on most species and specialized skin glands in monotremes that seep or ooze milk; the presence of hair or fur; specialized teeth; three minute bones within the ear; the presence of a neocortex region in the brain; and endothermic or "warm-blooded" bodies. The brain regulates endothermic and circulatory systems, including a four-chambered heart. Mammals encompass some 5,500 species (including humans), distributed in about 1,200 genera, 152 families and up to 46 orders, though this varies with the classification scheme.

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

Mammal anatomy

Skeletal system

The vast majority of mammals have seven cervical vertebrae (bones in the neck); this includes bats, giraffes, whales, and humans. The few exceptions include the manatee and the two-toed sloth, which each have only six cervical vertebrae, and the three-toed sloth with nine cervical vertebrae.

Respiratory system

See the section Mammalian lungs in the Lung article.

Circulatory system

The mammalian heart has four chambers: the right atrium, right ventricle, left atrium, and left ventricle. Atria are for receiving blood; ventricles are for pumping blood to the lungs and body. The ventricles are larger than the atria and their walls are thick, because muscular walls are needed to forcefully pump the blood from the heart to the body and lungs. Deoxygenated blood from the body enters the right atrium, which pumps it to the right ventricle. The right ventricle pumps blood to the lungs, where carbon dioxide diffuses out, and oxygen diffuses in. From the lungs, oxygenated blood enters the left atrium, where it is pumped to the left ventricle (the largest and strongest of the 4 chambers), which pumps it out to the rest of the body, including the heart's own blood supply.

Head and brain

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


Mammals have integumentary systems made up of three layers: the outermost epidermis, the dermis, and the hypodermis. This characteristic is not unique to mammals, since it is found in all vertebrates.

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.

No mammals are known to have hair that is naturally blue or green in color. 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 grey. The two-toed sloth can seem to have green fur, but this color is caused by algae growths.


Most mammals give birth to live young, but a few (the monotremes) lay eggs. Live birth also occurs in some non-mammalian species, such as guppies and hammerhead sharks; thus it is not a distinguishing characteristic of mammals. Although all mammals are endothermic, so are birds, and so this too is not a defining feature.

A characteristic of mammals is that they have mammary glands, a defining feature present only in mammals. The monotremes branched from other mammals early on, and do not have nipples, but they do have mammary glands. Most mammals are terrestrial, but some are aquatic, including sirenia (manatees and dugongs) and the cetaceans (dolphins and whales). Whales are the largest of all animals. There are semi-aquatic species such as seals which come to land to breed but spend most of the time in water.


True flight has been observed only once in mammals, the bats; mammals such as flying squirrels and flying lemurs are more accurately classified as gliding mammals.


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

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

From the earliest synapsids (such as Archaeothyris), their temporal fenestra expanded as synapsids evolved. In cynodonts, the temporal fenestra is much larger than the pelycosaurs and the primitive therapsids. From cynodonts to mammals, the temporal fenestra has been modified, now no longer a hole. The erect posture (unlike reptiles and pelycosaurs whose posture was sprawling) evolved in the Middle Permian by therapsids. The secondary palate also evolved by therapsids at the same time (the therocephalians had both of these traits). Mammalian hair also evolved in the Middle Permian, probably evolved from scales. 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", but this is strictly incorrect as these two are not reptiles but synapsids.

The earliest-known species seen to be mammal-like is the megazostrodon, which evolved toward the end of the Triassic period. It had evolved to possess fur, be warm-blooded, and was the first animal to have mammary glands, the defining feature of mammals. It is also believed to be nocturnal, for which a warm-blooded nature is necessary. However, it still bore young by laying reptile-like leathery eggs.

During the Mesozoic Era, mammals diversified into four main groups: multituberculates (Allotherium), 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.

A series of vertebrate animal lineages is listed below. All of these groups predate mammals, and are close relatives.

Mammals appear in the mid-Jurassic period, and persist to the present (as Monotremes, Metatheria, and Eutheria)

In the Mesozoic

Evolutionary biology has long held that most early mammals were tiny shrew-like animals that fed on insects. However, in January 2005, the journal Nature reported the discovery of two 130 million year old fossils of Repenomamus, one more than a meter in length, the other having remains of a baby dinosaur in its stomach (Nature, Jan. 15, 2005 [1]). And the 2004 discovery in China of a 164 million year old 50 cm long aquatic mammal-like fossil of a thus far unknown species, dubbed Castorocauda, by a team led by Dr. Ji Qiang of Nanjing University and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, was reported in February 2006 in the journal Science (Science, Feb. 24, 2006 [2]).

The earliest mammals include:

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 "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.

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 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.

Extinct groups are represented by a dagger (†).

Class Mammalia

Molecular classification of placentals

Molecular studies based on DNA analysis have suggested new relationships among mammal families over the last few years. Most of these findings have been independently validated by Retrotransposon presence/absence data. 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. These molecular findings are consistent with mammal zoogeography:

Following molecular DNA sequence analyses, 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. 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.

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


  • Bergsten, Johannes. February 2005. "A review of long-branch attraction". Cladistics 21:163–193. (pdf version)
  • 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 0-8018-5789-9
  • Simpson, George Gaylord. 1945. "The principles of classification and a classification of mammals". Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 85:1–350.
  • William J. Murphy, Eduardo Eizirik, Mark S. Springer et al., Resolution of the Early Placental Mammal Radiation Using Bayesian Phylogenetics,Science, Vol 294, Issue 5550, 2348-2351 , 14 December 2001.
  • 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 0-03-025034-X (Brooks Cole, 1999)
  • Wilson, Don E., and Deeann M. Reeder (eds). 1993. Mammal Species of the World, 2nd edition. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1206 pp. ISBN 1-56098-217-9
  • Jan Ole Kriegs, Gennady Churakov, Martin Kiefmann, Ursula Jordan, Juergen Brosius, Juergen Schmitz. (2006) Retroposed Elements as Archives for the Evolutionary History of Placental Mammals. PLoS Biol 4(4): e91.[3]
  • Wilson, D. E., and Reeder, D. M. (eds) Mammal Species of the World, 3rd edition, Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-8221-4.

See also

External links

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