Biology » Vertebrates » Mammals

Living Mammals

Living Mammals

The eutherians, or placental mammals, and the marsupials together comprise the clade of therian mammals. Monotremes, or metatherians, form their sister clade.

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”) (see the figures below). 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.

The platypus, a monotreme, possesses a leathery beak and lays eggs rather than giving birth to live young.

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

The echidna is another monotreme. (credit: modification of work by Barry Thomas)

Marsupials are found primarily in Australia, though the opossum is found in North America. Australian marsupials include the kangaroo, koala, bandicoot, Tasmanian devil (see the figure below), 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.

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

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

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.

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