Characteristics of Mammals

The presence of hair, composed of the protein keratin, is one of the most obvious characteristics of mammals. Although it is not very extensive or obvious on some species (such as whales), hair has many important functions for most mammals. Mammals are endothermic, and hair traps a boundary layer of air close to the body, retaining heat generated by metabolic activity. Along with insulation, hair can serve as a sensory mechanism via specialized hairs called vibrissae, better known as whiskers. Vibrissae attach to nerves that transmit information about tactile vibration produced by sound sensation, which is particularly useful to nocturnal or burrowing mammals. Hair can also provide protective coloration or be part of social signaling, such as when an animal’s hair stands “on end” to warn enemies, or possibly to make the mammal “look bigger” to predators.

Unlike the skin of birds, the integument (skin) of mammals, includes a number of different types of secretory glands. Sebaceous glands produce a lipid mixture called sebum that is secreted onto the hair and skin, providing water resistance and lubrication for hair. Sebaceous glands are located over most of the body. Eccrine glands produce sweat, or perspiration, which is mainly composed of water, but also contains metabolic waste products, and sometimes compounds with antibiotic activity. In most mammals, eccrine glands are limited to certain areas of the body, and some mammals do not possess them at all. However, in primates, especially humans, sweat glands are located over most of the body surface and figure prominently in regulating the body temperature through evaporative cooling. Apocrine glands, or scent glands, secrete substances that are used for chemical communication, such as in skunks. Mammary glands produce milk that is used to feed newborns. In both monotremes and eutherians, both males and females possess mammary glands, while in marsupials, mammary glands have been found only in some opossums. Mammary glands likely are modified sebaceous or eccrine glands, but their evolutionary origin is not entirely clear.

The skeletal system of mammals possesses many unique features. The lower jaw of mammals consists of only one bone, the dentary, and the jaw hinge connects the dentary to the squamosal (flat) part of the temporal bone in the skull. The jaws of other vertebrates are composed of several bones, including the quadrate bone at the back of the skull and the articular bone at the back of the jaw, with the jaw connected between the quadrate and articular bones. In the ear of other vertebrates, vibrations are transmitted to the inner ear by a single bone, the stapes. In mammals, the quadrate and articular bones have moved into the middle ear (Figure). The malleus is derived from the articular bone, whereas the incus originated from the quadrate bone. This arrangement of jaw and ear bones aids in distinguishing fossil mammals from fossils of other synapsids.

The illustration shows the three bones of the inner ear, the malleus, the incus, and the stapes, which are connected together inside the ear canal.
Mammalian ear bones. Bones of the mammalian middle ear are modified from bones of the jaw and skull in reptiles. The stapes is found in other vertebrates (e.g., the columella of birds) whereas in mammals, the malleus and incus are derived from the articular and quadrate bones, respectively. (credit: NCI)

The adductor muscles that close the jaw comprise two major muscles in mammals: the temporalis and the masseter. Working together, these muscles permit up-and-down and side-to-side movements of the jaw, making chewing possible—which is unique to mammals. Most mammals have heterodont teeth, meaning that they have different types and shapes of teeth (incisors, canines, premolars, and molars) rather than just one type and shape of tooth. Most mammals are also diphyodonts, meaning that they have two sets of teeth in their lifetime: deciduous or “baby” teeth, and permanent teeth. Most other vertebrates with teeth are polyphyodonts, that is, their teeth are replaced throughout their entire life.

Mammals, like birds, possess a four-chambered heart; however, the hearts of birds and mammals are an example of convergent evolution, since mammals clearly arose independently from different groups of tetrapod ancestors. Mammals also have a specialized group of cardiac cells (fibers) located in the walls of their right atrium called the sinoatrial node, or pacemaker, which determines the rate at which the heart beats. Mammalian erythrocytes (red blood cells) do not have nuclei, whereas the erythrocytes of other vertebrates are nucleated.

The kidneys of mammals have a portion of the nephron called the loop of Henle or nephritic loop, which allows mammals to produce urine with a high concentration of solutes—higher than that of the blood. Mammals lack a renal portal system, which is a system of veins that moves blood from the hind or lower limbs and region of the tail to the kidneys. Renal portal systems are present in all other vertebrates except jawless fishes. A urinary bladder is present in all mammals.

Unlike birds, the skulls of mammals have two occipital condyles, bones at the base of the skull that articulate with the first vertebra, as well as a secondary palate at the rear of the pharynx that helps to separate the pathway of swallowing from that of breathing. Turbinate bones (chonchae in humans) are located along the sides of the nasal cavity, and help warm and moisten air as it is inhaled. The pelvic bones are fused in mammals, and there are typically seven cervical vertebrae (except for some edentates and manatees). Mammals have movable eyelids and fleshy external ears (pinnae), quite unlike the naked external auditory openings of birds. Mammals also have a muscular diaphragm that is lacking in birds.

Mammalian brains also have certain characteristics that differ from the brains of other vertebrates. In some, but not all mammals, the cerebral cortex, the outermost part of the cerebrum, is highly convoluted and folded, allowing for a greater surface area than is possible with a smooth cortex. The optic lobes, located in the midbrain, are divided into two parts in mammals, while other vertebrates possess a single, undivided lobe. Eutherian mammals also possess a specialized structure, the corpus callosum, which links the two cerebral hemispheres together. The corpus callosum functions to integrate motor, sensory, and cognitive functions between the left and right cerebral cortexes.

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