The Origin and Diversity of Mammals

Mammals (class Mammalia) appeared in the early part of the Mesozoic era, about 225 million years ago, branching from a lineage of mammal-like reptiles. Small mammals coexisted with reptiles and dinosaurs for at least 150 million years. After the large reptiles and dinosaurs disappeared during the mass extinction at the close of the Mesozoic era, mammals increased dramatically in numbers, diversity, and size. Today, mammals range in size from tiny shrews and bats weighing only about 2 grams to the endangered blue whale, which measures up to 33 meters long and weighs up to 160,000 kilograms—the largest animal ever to live on Earth.

Skeletal simplification accompanied the evolution of early mammals from their larger reptilian ancestors. During mammalian evolution, some bones from the lower jaw were incorporated into the middle ear, leaving a single bone in the lower jaw. The number of bones in the skull also decreased. The bulk of both the limbs and the bony girdles from which they are suspended was reduced. Mammals have far fewer, but more highly differentiated, teeth than reptiles do. Differences in the number, type, and arrangement of teeth in mammals reflect their varied diets.

Skeletal features are readily preserved as fossils, but the soft parts of animals are seldom fossilized. Therefore, we do not know when mammalian features such as mammary glands, sweat glands, hair, and a four-chambered heart evolved. Mammals are unique among animals in supplying their young with a nutritive fluid (milk) secreted by mammary glands. Mammalian eggs are fertilized within the female's body, and the embryos undergo a period of development, called gestation, within a specialized organ, the uterus, prior to being born. In many species, the embryos are connected to the uterus and nourished by a placenta. In addition, mammals have a protective and insulating covering of hair, which is luxuriant in some species but has been almost entirely lost in whales, dolphins, and humans. In whales and dolphins, thick layers of insulating fat (blubber) replace hair as a heat-retention mechanism. Clothing assumes the same role for humans. The approximately 4,000 species of living mammals are divided into two major subclasses: Prototheria and Theria. The subclass Prototheria contains a single order, the Monotremata, with a total of three species, which are found only in Australia and New Guinea. These mammals, the duck-billed platypus and the spiny anteaters, or echidnas, differ from other mammals in lacking a placenta, laying eggs, and having legs that poke out to the side (Figure 34.22). Monotremes supply milk for their young, but they have no nipples on their mammary glands; rather, the milk simply oozes out and is lapped off the fur by the offspring.

Members of the other subclass, Theria, are further divided into two groups. In most species of the first group, the Mar-supialia, females have a ventral pouch in which they carry and feed their offspring (Figure 34.23a). Gestation in marsupials is short; the young are born tiny but with well-developed forelimbs, with which they climb to the pouch. They attach to a nipple, but cannot suck. The mother ejects milk into the tiny offspring until they grow large enough to suckle. Once her offspring have left the uterus, a female marsupial may become sexually receptive again. She can then carry fertilized eggs capable of initiating development and replacing the offspring in her pouch should something happen to them.

There are about 240 living species of marsupials. At one time marsupials were found on all continents, but today the majority of species are restricted to the Australian region, with a modest representation in South America (Figure 34.23b). One species, the Virginia opossum, is widely distributed in the United States. Marsupials radiated to become terrestrial herbivores, insectivores, and carnivores, but no marsupial species live in the oceans or can fly, although some are gliders. The largest living marsupial is the red kangaroo of Australia (Figure 34.23a), which weighs up to 90 kilo

(a) Tachyglossus aculeata

34.22 Monotremes (a) The short-beaked echidna is one of the two surviving species of echidnas. (b) The duck-billed platypus is the other surviving monotreme species.

(b) Ornithorhynchus anatinus

(a) Tachyglossus aculeata

34.22 Monotremes (a) The short-beaked echidna is one of the two surviving species of echidnas. (b) The duck-billed platypus is the other surviving monotreme species.

(b) Ornithorhynchus anatinus grams. Much larger marsupials existed in Australia until they were exterminated by humans soon after they reached the continent (about 50,000 years ago).

Most living mammals belong to the second therian group, the eutherians. (Eutherians are sometimes called placental mammals, but this name is not accurate because some marsupials also have placentas.) Eutherians are more developed at birth than are marsupials, and no external pouch houses them after birth. The nearly 4,000 species of eutherians are placed into 16 major groups (Figure 34.24), the largest of which is the rodents (order Rodentia) with about 1,700 species. The next largest group, the bats (order Chiroptera), has about 1,000 species, followed by the moles and shrews (order Insectivora) with slightly more than 400 species.

Eutherians are extremely varied in their form and ecology. Several lineages of terrestrial eu-therians subsequently colonized marine environments to become whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions. Eutherian mammals are—or were, until they were greatly reduced in numbers by hu-mans—the most important grazers and browsers in most terrestrial ecosystems. Grazing and browsing have been an evolutionary force intense enough to select for the spines, tough leaves, and difficult-to-eat growth forms found in many plants—a striking example of coevolution.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Essentials of Human Physiology

Essentials of Human Physiology

This ebook provides an introductory explanation of the workings of the human body, with an effort to draw connections between the body systems and explain their interdependencies. A framework for the book is homeostasis and how the body maintains balance within each system. This is intended as a first introduction to physiology for a college-level course.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment