WHAT IS A
Mammals are vertebrate animals with hair.
Vertebrates are animals with backbones. Other vertebrate animals are bony fish, sharks, amphibians, reptiles
and birds. Like birds, mammals are warm-blooded. Their hearts have four chambers
with separate channels to carry oxygen-rich blood to their brains, muscles and
tissues. Once the oxygen gets used, blood is carried to the lungs for more
Mammals are warm-blooded animals. That means they
keep a high, constant body temperature even though the outside temperatures
change. Insulation, such as hair or fat, helps keep mammals warm. Mammals arose
from reptiles about 240 million years ago. They began to become really
successful and important in ecosystems after dinosaurs became extinct about 65
million years ago. Mammals are different from reptiles in a number of ways.
Reptiles have a lower jaw made up of several bones.
Reptile jaws are attached loosely to their skulls. A snake, for example, can
loosen its jaw and swallow a mouse fatter than the snakes’ own body. Mammals
have one bone in their lower jaws. Their jawbones are firmly attached to their
skulls. In mammals, the extra bones of reptiles evolved into ear bones. In
short, reptiles have three jaw bones and one ear bone. Mammals have one jaw bone
and three ear bones.
Mammals’ jaws move less than reptile jaws. But, the
jaws of mammals are stronger, which help them use their fancy teeth better. Mammals’
teeth have three distinct features. First, their teeth are specialized from
front to back. Second, their teeth are set firmly in sockets. Third, mammals
have two sets of teeth – "baby teeth" and permanent ones. Mammals have four
kinds of teeth: incisors for nipping, canines for grasping prey, premolars and
molars for crushing, shearing and grinding food. Molars are present only in
These special kinds of teeth help mammals chew
their food better. Once the small bits of chewed food enter the digestive tract,
they mix with digestive juices and are digested fast. That gives mammals fuel so
they can stay active regardless of the temperature outside.
We think of mammals as reptiles glorified with
hair. Many basic features of mammals are associated with their hair. Originally,
their hair helped insulate them. But their hair began serving other purposes as
well, such as helping them camouflage, sense their environment, warn them of
dangers and recognize the opposite sex.
Attached to each hair is a tiny muscle that can
raise the hair to trap warm air. In humans, muscles contract and raise "goose
bumps" when they are cold. Each hair has a gland that secretes oil to waterproof
hair. Sweat glands release water and salts that evaporate from the skin and
hair, helping cool the body.
Cats have few sweat glands so they lick their fur to help cool off. Dogs
pant, and evaporation off their tongues helps them cool. Many mammals also have
hair glands that release musky odors. The odors serve as sexual attractions or
as ways of recognizing each other.
Mammary glands produce milk, a mixture of water,
carbohydrates, fats, proteins and salts. Milk gives newborn, nursing mammals a
nutritional "jumpstart." Nursing also lets newborns interact with their mothers
and littermates, helping them become trained and socialized.
The platypus and echidnas of Australia lay eggs
like their ancestral reptiles did. In other mammals, embryos grow in their
mothers and are given birth. An intimate relationship develops between mothers
and embryos. What makes that happen is the placenta, made of tissues that feed
and remove waste from the developing fetus inside. This doesn’t happen, however,
with marsupials, which are mammals with pouches for their young, such as
An advanced brain is another key to the success of
mammals. The basic parts of mammals’ brains were present in their ancestral
reptiles and even fish. Mammals, however, have developed parts of their brains
used for learning.
Mammals are more highly dependent on learning than
most other animals are. Mammals don’t rely much on instinctive ways of solving
problems. Instead they piece together solutions based on experience. The
cerebral cortex is their center of learning in their brains and is larger than
in other animals.
There are about 4,400 species of living mammals,
much fewer than species of birds, reptiles, fish or other invertebrates, such as
insects and snails. Mammals impress us not by their number of species, but by
the number of body types. The common ancestor of mammals that use placentas to
feed embryos and of marsupials that carry their young in pouches was a
rat-to-opossum-sized mammal. That mammal was four-legged, ate plants as well as
meat, and lived on land.
From those beginnings, many different kinds of
mammals evolved, from bats and shrews the length of your little finger and the
weight of a penny to blue whales as long as a tennis court and as heavy as three
loaded freight cars.