There are approximately 4,050 living species of mammals in the world. They represent only a small portion (about 8.5%) of the known vertebrates. All mammals share three characteristics not found in other animals: 3 middle ear bones; hair; and the production of milk by modified sweat glands called mammary glands.
Key features of Mammalia
- endothermic (warm-blooded), which means they can generate their own body heat
- specialized reproductive strategies
- specialized teeth
- bodies covered with hair
Mammalian hair, made of a protein called keratin, serves at least four functions. First, it slows the exchange of heat with the environment (insulation). Second, specialized hairs (whiskers) have a sensory function, letting the owner know when it is in contact with an object in its external environment. These hairs are often richly innervated and well-supplied with muscles that control their position. Third, through their color and pattern, hairs affect the appearance of a mammal. They may serve to camouflage, to announce the presence of especially good defense systems (for example, the conspicuous color pattern of a skunk is a warning to predators), or to communicate social information (for example, threats, such as the erect hair on the back of a wolf; sex, such as the different colors of male and female capuchin monkeys; presence of danger, such as the white underside of the tail of a white-tailed deer). Fourth, hair provides some protection, either simply by providing an additional protective layer (against abrasion or sunburn, for example) or by taking on the form of dangerous spines that deter predators (porcupines, spiny rats, others).