WHAT IS A MAMMAL?

Mammals are vertebrate animals with hair. Vertebrates are animals with backbones. BeaverOther 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 oxygen.

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 teethblackbear.jpg (10544 bytes) 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 permanent teeth.

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.

mtnlion.jpg (9252 bytes)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 kangaroos.

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.