Identify characteristics of mammals

Mammals are vertebrates that possess hair and mammary glands. Several other characteristics are distinctive to mammals, including certain features of the jaw, skeleton, integument, and internal anatomy. Modern mammals belong to three clades: monotremes, marsupials, and eutherians (or placental mammals).

Learning Objectives

  • Identify characteristics of mammals
  • Name and describe the distinguishing features of the three main groups of mammals
  • Describe the evolutionary history of mammals
  • Identify characteristics of primates
  • Describe the evolutionary history of primates
  • Describe the evolutionary history of humans


Characteristics of Mammals

The presence of hair is one of the most obvious signs of a mammal. Although it is not very extensive on certain species, such as whales, hair has many important functions for mammals. Mammals are endothermic, and hair provides insulation to retain heat generated by metabolic work. Hair traps a layer of air close to the body, retaining heat. Along with insulation, hair can serve as a sensory mechanism via specialized hairs called vibrissae, better known as whiskers. These attach to nerves that transmit information about 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.”

Mammalian integument, or skin, includes secretory glands with various functions. Sebaceous glands produce a lipid mixture called sebum that is secreted onto the hair and skin for water resistance and lubrication. Sebaceous glands are located over most of the body. Eccrine glands produce sweat, or perspiration, which is mainly composed of water. 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 figures prominently in thermoregulation, regulating the body through evaporative cooling. Sweat glands are located over most of the body surface in primates. 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. While male monotremes and eutherians possess mammary glands, male marsupials do not. Mammary glands likely are modified sebaceous or eccrine glands, but their evolutionary origin is not entirely clear.

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.

Figure 1. Bones of the mammalian inner ear are modified from bones of the jaw and skull. (credit: NCI)

The skeletal system of mammals possesses many unique features. The lower jaw of mammals consists of only one bone, the dentary. The jaws of other vertebrates are composed of more than one bone. In mammals, the dentary bone joins the skull at the squamosal bone, while in other vertebrates, the quadrate bone of the jaw joins with the articular bone of the skull. These bones are present in mammals, but they have been modified to function in hearing and form bones in the middle ear (Figure 1). Other vertebrates possess only one middle ear bone, the stapes. Mammals have three: the malleus, incus, and stapes. The malleus originated 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 adductor muscle that closes the jaw is composed of two muscles in mammals: the temporalis and the masseter. These allow side-to-side movement 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 rather than just one type and shape of tooth. Most mammals are diphyodonts, meaning that they have two sets of teeth in their lifetime: deciduous or “baby” teeth, and permanent teeth. Other vertebrates are polyphyodonts, that is, their teeth are replaced throughout their entire life.

Mammals, like birds, possess a four-chambered heart. Mammals also have a specialized group of cardiac 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.

Mammalian brains have certain characteristics that differ from other vertebrates. In some, but not all mammals, the cerebral cortex, the outermost part of the cerebrum, is highly 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, whereas other vertebrates possess a single, undivided lobe. Eutherian mammals also possess a specialized structure that links the two cerebral hemispheres, called the corpus callosum.

Groups of Mammals

There are three groups of mammals: the eutherians, or placental mammals, the marsupials, and the monotremes, or metatherians. These groups are divided into two clades: the eutherians and marsupials comprise the clade of therian mammals, and monotremes form their sister clade.


The illustration shows an animal resembling a small bear lying in the grass.

Figure 2. The Tasmanian devil is one of several marsupials native to Australia. (credit: Wayne McLean)

Marsupials are found primarily in Australia, though the opossum is found in North America. Australian marsupials include the kangaroo, koala, bandicoot, Tasmanian devil (Figure 2), and several other species. Most species of marsupials possess a pouch in which the very premature young reside after birth, receiving milk and continuing to develop. Marsupials differ from eutherians in that there is a less complex placental connection: The young are born at an extremely early age and latch onto the nipple within the pouch.


Eutherians are the most widespread of the mammals, occurring throughout the world. There are 18 to 20 orders of placental mammals. Some examples are Insectivora, the insect eaters; Edentata, the toothless anteaters; Rodentia, the rodents; Cetacea, the aquatic mammals including whales; Carnivora, carnivorous mammals including dogs, cats, and bears; and Primates, which includes humans. Eutherian mammals are sometimes called placental mammals because all species possess a complex placenta that connects a fetus to the mother, allowing for gas, fluid, and nutrient exchange. While other mammals possess a less complex placenta or briefly have a placenta, all eutherians possess a complex placenta during gestation.


There are three living species of monotremes: the platypus and two 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 3). The platypus and one species of echidna are found in Australia, and the other species of echidna is found in New Guinea. Monotremes are unique among mammals as they lay eggs, rather than giving birth to live young. The shells of their eggs are not like the hard shells of birds, but are a leathery shell, similar to the shells of reptile eggs. Monotremes have no teeth.

These illustrations show two short-haired mammals (platypus and echidna) with webbed feet, flat tails and a flat snout.

Figure 3. (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. (credit b: modification of work by Barry Thomas)

Evolution of Mammals

The illustration shows an animal resembling a short-haired dog.

Figure 4. Cynodonts, which first appeared in the Late Permian period 260 million years ago, are thought to be the ancestors of modern mammals. (credit: Nobu Tamura)

Mammals are synapsids, meaning they have a single opening in the skull. They are the only living synapsids, as earlier forms became extinct by the Jurassic period. The early non-mammalian synapsids can be divided into two groups, the pelycosaurs and the therapsids. Within the therapsids, a group called the cynodonts are thought to be the ancestors of mammals (Figure 4).

A key characteristic of synapsids is endothermy, rather than the ectothermy seen in most other vertebrates. The increased metabolic rate required to internally modify body temperature went hand in hand with changes to certain skeletal structures. The later synapsids, which had more evolved characteristics unique to mammals, possess cheeks for holding food and heterodont teeth, which are specialized for chewing, mechanically breaking down food to speed digestion and releasing the energy needed to produce heat. Chewing also requires the ability to chew and breathe at the same time, which is facilitated by the presence of a secondary palate. A secondary palate separates the area of the mouth where chewing occurs from the area above where respiration occurs, allowing breathing to proceed uninterrupted during chewing. A secondary palate is not found in pelycosaurs but is present in cynodonts and mammals. The jawbone also shows changes from early synapsids to later ones. The zygomatic arch, or cheekbone, is present in mammals and advanced therapsids such as cynodonts, but is not present in pelycosaurs. The presence of the zygomatic arch suggests the presence of the masseter muscle, which closes the jaw and functions in chewing.

In the appendicular skeleton, the shoulder girdle of therian mammals is modified from that of other vertebrates in that it does not possess a procoracoid bone or an interclavicle, and the scapula is the dominant bone.

Mammals evolved from therapsids in the late Triassic period, as the earliest known mammal fossils are from the early Jurassic period, some 205 million years ago. Early mammals were small, about the size of a small rodent. Mammals first began to diversify in the Mesozoic Era, from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous periods, although most of these mammals were extinct by the end of the Mesozoic. During the Cretaceous period, another radiation of mammals began and continued through the Cenozoic Era, about 65 million years ago.

In Summary: Mammals

Mammals in general are vertebrates that possess hair and mammary glands. The mammalian integument includes various secretory glands, including sebaceous glands, eccrine glands, apocrine glands, and mammary glands. Mammals are synapsids, meaning that they have a single opening in the skull. A key characteristic of synapsids is endothermy rather than the ectothermy seen in other vertebrates. Mammals probably evolved from therapsids in the late Triassic period, as the earliest known mammal fossils are from the early Jurassic period. There are three groups of mammals living today: monotremes, marsupials, and eutherians. Monotremes are unique among mammals as they lay eggs, rather than giving birth to young. Eutherian mammals are sometimes called placental mammals, because all species possess a complex placenta that connects a fetus to the mother, allowing for gas, fluid, and nutrient exchange.


Characteristics of Primates

Order Primates of class Mammalia includes lemurs, tarsiers, monkeys, apes, and humans. Non-human primates live primarily in the tropical or subtropical regions of South America, Africa, and Asia. They range in size from the mouse lemur at 30 grams (1 ounce) to the mountain gorilla at 200 kilograms (441 pounds). The characteristics and evolution of primates is of particular interest to us as it allows us to understand the evolution of our own species.

All primate species possess adaptations for climbing trees, as they all descended from tree-dwellers. This arboreal heritage of primates has resulted in hands and feet that are adapted for brachiation, or climbing and swinging through trees. These adaptations include, but are not limited to: 1) a rotating shoulder joint, 2) a big toe that is widely separated from the other toes and thumbs, which are widely separated from fingers (except humans), which allow for gripping branches, 3) stereoscopic vision, two overlapping fields of vision from the eyes, which allows for the perception of depth and gauging distance. Other characteristics of primates are brains that are larger than those of most other mammals, claws that have been modified into flattened nails, typically only one offspring per pregnancy, and a trend toward holding the body upright.

Order Primates is divided into two groups: prosimians and anthropoids. Prosimians include the bush babies of Africa, the lemurs of Madagascar, and the lorises, pottos, and tarsiers of Southeast Asia. Anthropoids include monkeys, apes, and humans. In general, prosimians tend to be nocturnal (in contrast to diurnal anthropoids) and exhibit a smaller size and smaller brain than anthropoids.

Evolution of Primates

The first primate-like mammals are referred to as proto-primates. They were roughly similar to squirrels and tree shrews in size and appearance. The existing fossil evidence (mostly from North Africa) is very fragmented. These proto-primates remain largely mysterious creatures until more fossil evidence becomes available. The oldest known primate-like mammals with a relatively robust fossil record is Plesiadapis (although some researchers do not agree that Plesiadapis was a proto-primate). Fossils of this primate have been dated to approximately 55 million years ago. Plesiadapiforms were proto-primates that had some features of the teeth and skeleton in common with true primates. They were found in North America and Europe in the Cenozoic and went extinct by the end of the Eocene.

The first true primates were found in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa in the Eocene Epoch. These early primates resembled present-day prosimians such as lemurs. Evolutionary changes continued in these early primates, with larger brains and eyes, and smaller muzzles being the trend. By the end of the Eocene Epoch, many of the early prosimian species went extinct due either to cooler temperatures or competition from the first monkeys.

The photo shows a black monkey with its mouth open in a howl.

Figure 5. The howler monkey is native to Central and South America. It makes a call that sounds like a lion roaring. (credit: Xavi Talleda)

Anthropoid monkeys evolved from prosimians during the Oligocene Epoch. By 40 million years ago, evidence indicates that monkeys were present in the New World (South America) and the Old World (Africa and Asia). New World monkeys are also called Platyrrhini—a reference to their broad noses (Figure 5). Old World monkeys are called Catarrhini—a reference to their narrow noses. There is still quite a bit of uncertainty about the origins of the New World monkeys. At the time the platyrrhines arose, the continents of South American and Africa had drifted apart. Therefore, it is thought that monkeys arose in the Old World and reached the New World either by drifting on log rafts or by crossing land bridges. Due to this reproductive isolation, New World monkeys and Old World monkeys underwent separate adaptive radiations over millions of years. The New World monkeys are all arboreal, whereas Old World monkeys include arboreal and ground-dwelling species.

Apes evolved from the catarrhines in Africa midway through the Cenozoic, approximately 25 million years ago. Apes are generally larger than monkeys and they do not possess a tail. All apes are capable of moving through trees, although many species spend most their time on the ground. Apes are more intelligent than monkeys, and they have relatively larger brains proportionate to body size. The apes are divided into two groups. The lesser apes comprise the family Hylobatidae, including gibbons and siamangs. The great apes include the genera Pan (chimpanzees and bonobos) (Figure 6a), Gorilla (gorillas), Pongo (orangutans), and Homo (humans) (Figure 6b). The very arboreal gibbons are smaller than the great apes; they have low sexual dimorphism (that is, the sexes are not markedly different in size); and they have relatively longer arms used for swinging through trees.

Part a shows a chimpanzee. Part b shows the skeletons of a gibbon, human, chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan. The skeletons are very similar and vary in the length of the limbs, posture, and shape and size of the head.

Figure 6. The (a) chimpanzee is one of the great apes. It possesses a relatively large brain and has no tail. (b) All great apes have a similar skeletal structure. (credit a: modification of work by Aaron Logan; credit b: modification of work by Tim Vickers)

Evolution of Humans

The family Hominidae of order Primates includes the hominoids: the great apes (Figure 7). Evidence from the fossil record and from a comparison of human and chimpanzee DNA suggests that humans and chimpanzees diverged from a common hominoid ancestor approximately 6 million years ago. Several species evolved from the evolutionary branch that includes humans, although our species is the only surviving member. The term hominin is used to refer to those species that evolved after this split of the primate line, thereby designating species that are more closely related to humans than to chimpanzees. Hominins were predominantly bipedal and include those groups that likely gave rise to our species—including Australopithecus, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus—and those non-ancestral groups that can be considered “cousins” of modern humans, such as Neanderthals. Determining the true lines of descent in hominins is difficult. In years past, when relatively few hominin fossils had been recovered, some scientists believed that considering them in order, from oldest to youngest, would demonstrate the course of evolution from early hominins to modern humans. In the past several years, however, many new fossils have been found, and it is clear that there was often more than one species alive at any one time and that many of the fossils found (and species named) represent hominin species that died out and are not ancestral to modern humans.

The evolutionary tree shows the relationship between humans and the great apes. All great apes, including baboons, gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, humans, and human ancestors, belong in the superfamily Hominoidea. Of these great apes, all but baboons and gibbons belong in the family Hominidae. Gorillas, chimpanzees, humans, and human ancestors belong in the subfamily Homininae. Humans and their direct ancestors belong in the tribe Hominini.

Figure 7. This chart shows the evolution of modern humans.

Very Early Hominins

Three species of very early hominids have made news in the past few years. The oldest of these, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, has been dated to nearly 7 million years ago. There is a single specimen of this genus, a skull that was a surface find in Chad. The fossil, informally called “Toumai,” is a mosaic of primitive and evolved characteristics, and it is unclear how this fossil fits with the picture given by molecular data, namely that the line leading to modern humans and modern chimpanzees apparently bifurcated about 6 million years ago. It is not thought at this time that this species was an ancestor of modern humans.

A second, younger species, Orrorin tugenensis, is also a relatively recent discovery, found in 2000. There are several specimens ofOrrorin. It is not known whether Orrorin was a human ancestor, but this possibility has not been ruled out. Some features of Orrorinare more similar to those of modern humans than are the australopiths, although Orrorin is much older.

A third genus, Ardipithecus, was discovered in the 1990s, and the scientists who discovered the first fossil found that some other scientists did not believe the organism to be a biped (thus, it would not be considered a hominid). In the intervening years, several more specimens of Ardipithecus, classified as two different species, demonstrated that the organism was bipedal. Again, the status of this genus as a human ancestor is uncertain.

Early Hominins: Genus Australopithecus

Australopithecus (“southern ape”) is a genus of hominin that evolved in eastern Africa approximately 4 million years ago and went extinct about 2 million years ago. This genus is of particular interest to us as it is thought that our genus, genus Homo, evolved from Australopithecus about 2 million years ago (after likely passing through some transitional states). Australopithecus had a number of characteristics that were more similar to the great apes than to modern humans. For example, sexual dimorphism was more exaggerated than in modern humans. Males were up to 50 percent larger than females, a ratio that is similar to that seen in modern gorillas and orangutans. In contrast, modern human males are approximately 15 to 20 percent larger than females. The brain size of Australopithecus relative to its body mass was also smaller than modern humans and more similar to that seen in the great apes. A key feature that Australopithecus had in common with modern humans was bipedalism, although it is likely that Australopithecus also spent time in trees. Hominin footprints, similar to those of modern humans, were found in Laetoli, Tanzania and dated to 3.6 million years ago. They showed that hominins at the time of Australopithecus were walking upright.

There were a number of Australopithecus species, which are often referred to as australopiths. Australopithecus anamensis lived about 4.2 million years ago. More is known about another early species, Australopithecus afarensis, which lived between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago. This species demonstrates a trend in human evolution: the reduction of the dentition and jaw in size. A. afarensis (Figure 8) had smaller canines and molars compared to apes, but these were larger than those of modern humans.

 Photo A shows an A. afarensis skull, which is similar in shape but the forehead slopes back and the jaw juts out. Photo A shows a human skull.

Figure 8. The skull of (a) Australopithecus afarensis, an early hominid that lived between two and three million years ago, resembled that of (b) modern humans but was smaller with a sloped forehead and prominent jaw.

Its brain size was 380–450 cubic centimeters, approximately the size of a modern chimpanzee brain. It also had prognathic jaws, which is a relatively longer jaw than that of modern humans. In the mid-1970s, the fossil of an adult female A. afarensis was found in the Afar region of Ethiopia and dated to 3.24 million years ago (Figure 9). The fossil, which is informally called “Lucy,” is significant because it was the most complete australopith fossil found, with 40 percent of the skeleton recovered.

Partial skeleton is human-like but child-sized.

Figure 9. This adult female Australopithecus afarensis skeleton, nicknamed Lucy, was discovered in the mid 1970s. (credit: “120”/Wikimedia Commons)

Australopithecus africanus lived between 2 and 3 million years ago. It had a slender build and was bipedal, but had robust arm bones and, like other early hominids, may have spent significant time in trees. Its brain was larger than that of A. afarensis at 500 cubic centimeters, which is slightly less than one-third the size of modern human brains. Two other species, Australopithecus bahrelghazaliand Australopithecus garhi, have been added to the roster of australopiths in recent years.

A Dead End: Genus Paranthropus

The australopiths had a relatively slender build and teeth that were suited for soft food. In the past several years, fossils of hominids of a different body type have been found and dated to approximately 2.5 million years ago. These hominids, of the genus Paranthropus, were relatively large and had large grinding teeth. Their molars showed heavy wear, suggesting that they had a coarse and fibrous vegetarian diet as opposed to the partially carnivorous diet of the australopiths. Paranthropus includes Paranthropus robustus of South Africa, and Paranthropus aethiopicus and Paranthropus boisei of East Africa. The hominids in this genus went extinct more than 1 million years ago and are not thought to be ancestral to modern humans, but rather members of an evolutionary branch on the hominin tree that left no descendants.

Early Hominins: Genus Homo

The human genus, Homo, first appeared between 2.5 and 3 million years ago. For many years, fossils of a species called H. habiliswere the oldest examples in the genus Homo, but in 2010, a new species called Homo gautengensis was discovered and may be older. Compared to A. africanus, H. habilis had a number of features more similar to modern humans. H. habilis had a jaw that was less prognathic than the australopiths and a larger brain, at 600–750 cubic centimeters. However, H. habilis retained some features of older hominin species, such as long arms. The name H. habilis means “handy man,” which is a reference to the stone tools that have been found with its remains.

Watch this video about Smithsonian paleontologist Briana Pobiner explaining the link between hominin eating of meat and evolutionary trends.

The photo shows a skull that looks similar to a human skull but has prominent brow ridges.

Figure 10. Homo erectus had a prominent brow and a nose that pointed downward rather than forward.

H. erectus appeared approximately 1.8 million years ago (Figure 10). It is believed to have originated in East Africa and was the first hominin species to migrate out of Africa. Fossils of H. erectus have been found in India, China, Java, and Europe, and were known in the past as “Java Man” or “Peking Man.” H. erectus had a number of features that were more similar to modern humans than those of H. habilis. H. erectus was larger in size than earlier hominins, reaching heights up to 1.85 meters and weighing up to 65 kilograms, which are sizes similar to those of modern humans. Its degree of sexual dimorphism was less than earlier species, with males being 20 to 30 percent larger than females, which is close to the size difference seen in our species. H. erectus had a larger brain than earlier species at 775–1,100 cubic centimeters, which compares to the 1,130–1,260 cubic centimeters seen in modern human brains. Herectus also had a nose with downward-facing nostrils similar to modern humans, rather than the forward facing nostrils found in other primates. Longer, downward-facing nostrils allow for the warming of cold air before it enters the lungs and may have been an adaptation to colder climates. Artifacts found with fossils of H. erectus suggest that it was the first hominin to use fire, hunt, and have a home base. H. erectus is generally thought to have lived until about 50,000 years ago.

Humans: Homo sapiens

The illustration shows a very human looking Neanderthal wearing fur and cutting a hide with a stone tool.

Figure 11. The Homo neanderthalensis used tools and may have worn clothing.

A number of species, sometimes called archaic Homo sapiens, apparently evolved from H. erectus starting about 500,000 years ago. These species include Homo heidelbergensis, Homo rhodesiensis, and Homo neanderthalensis. These archaic H. sapiens had a brain size similar to that of modern humans, averaging 1,200–1,400 cubic centimeters. They differed from modern humans by having a thick skull, a prominent brow ridge, and a receding chin. Some of these species survived until 30,000–10,000 years ago, overlapping with modern humans (Figure 11).

There is considerable debate about the origins of anatomically modern humans or Homo sapiens sapiens. As discussed earlier, Herectus migrated out of Africa and into Asia and Europe in the first major wave of migration about 1.5 million years ago. It is thought that modern humans arose in Africa from H. erectus and migrated out of Africa about 100,000 years ago in a second major migration wave. Then, modern humans replaced H. erectus species that had migrated into Asia and Europe in the first wave.

This evolutionary timeline is supported by molecular evidence. One approach to studying the origins of modern humans is to examine mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from populations around the world. Because a fetus develops from an egg containing its mother’s mitochondria (which have their own, non-nuclear DNA), mtDNA is passed entirely through the maternal line. Mutations in mtDNA can now be used to estimate the timeline of genetic divergence. The resulting evidence suggests that all modern humans have mtDNA inherited from a common ancestor that lived in Africa about 160,000 years ago. Another approach to the molecular understanding of human evolution is to examine the Y chromosome, which is passed from father to son. This evidence suggests that all men today inherited a Y chromosome from a male that lived in Africa about 140,000 years ago.

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