Living Mammals

There are three major groups of living mammals: monotremes (prototheria), marsupials (metatheria), and placental (eutheria) mammals. The eutherians and the marsupials together comprise a clade of therian mammals, with the monotremes forming a sister clade to both metatherians and eutherians.

There are very few living species of monotremes: the platypus and four species of echidnas, or spiny anteaters. The leathery-beaked platypus belongs to the family Ornithorhynchidae (“bird beak”), whereas echidnas belong to the family Tachyglossidae (“sticky tongue”) (Figure). The platypus and one species of echidna are found in Australia, and the other species of echidna are found in New Guinea. Monotremes are unique among mammals because they lay eggs, rather than giving birth to live young. The shells of their eggs are not like the hard shells of birds, but have a leathery shell, similar to the shells of reptile eggs. Monotremes retain their eggs through about two-thirds of the developmental period, and then lay them in nests. A yolk-sac placenta helps support development. The babies hatch in a fetal state and complete their development in the nest, nourished by milk secreted by mammary glands opening directly to the skin. Monotremes, except for young platypuses, do not have teeth. Body temperature in the three monotreme species is maintained at about 30°C, considerably lower than the average body temperature of marsupial and placental mammals, which are typically between 35 and 38°C.

These illustrations show two short-haired mammals (platypus and echidna) with webbed feet, flat tails and a flat snout.
Egg-laying mammals. (a) The platypus, a monotreme, possesses a leathery beak and lays eggs rather than giving birth to live young. (b) The echidna is another monotreme, with long hairs modified into spines. (credit b: modification of work by Barry Thomas)

Over 2/3 of the approximately 330 living species of marsupials are found in Australia, with the rest, nearly all various types of opossum, found in the Americas, especially South America. Australian marsupials include the kangaroo, koala, bandicoot, Tasmanian devil (Figure), and several other species. Like monotremes, the embryos of marsupials are nourished during a short gestational period (about a month in kangaroos) by a yolk-sac placenta, but with no intervening egg shell. Some marsupial embryos can enter an embryonic diapause, and delay implantation, suspending development until implantation is completed. Marsupial young are also effectively fetal at birth. Most, but not all, species of marsupials possess a pouch in which the very premature young reside, receiving milk and continuing their development. In kangaroos, the young joeys continue to nurse for about a year and a half.

The illustration shows an animal resembling a small bear lying in the grass.
A marsupial mammal. The Tasmanian devil is one of several marsupials native to Australia. (credit: Wayne McLean)

Eutherians (placentals) are the most widespread and numerous of the mammals, occurring throughout the world. Eutherian mammals are sometimes called “placental mammals” because all species possess a complex chorioallantoic placenta that connects a fetus to the mother, allowing for gas, fluid, and nutrient exchange. There are about 4,000 species of placental mammals in 18 to 20 orders with various adaptations for burrowing, flying, swimming, hunting, running, and climbing. In the evolutionary sense, they have been incredibly successful in form, diversity, and abundance. The eutherian mammals are classified in two major clades, the Atlantogenata and the Boreoeutheria. The Atlantogeneta include the Afrotheria (e.g., elephants, hyraxes, and manatees) and the Xenarthra (anteaters, armadillos, and sloths). The Boreoeutheria contain two large groups, the Euarchontoglires and the Laurasiatheria. Familiar orders in the Euarchontoglires are the Scandentia (tree shrews), Rodentia (rats, mice, squirrels, porcupines), Lagomorpha (rabbits and hares), and the Primates (including humans). Major Laurasiatherian orders include the Perissodactyla (e.g., horses and rhinos), the Cetartiodactyla (e.g., cows, giraffes, pigs, hippos, and whales), the Carnivora (e.g., cats, dogs, and bears), and the Chiroptera (bats and flying foxes). The two largest orders are the rodents (2,000 species) and bats (about 1,000 species), which together constitute approximately 60 percent of all eutherian species.