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Mammal

Mammal, animal that raises its young on milk. Most mammals are covered with hair or fur, and most have specialized teeth that help them to cut or chew their food. Compared to other vertebrates (animals with backbones), mammals have highly developed nervous systems, and they show an intelligence and resourcefulness that few other animals can match. Mammals include some of the most familiar members of the animal kingdom, such as cats, dogs, elephants, and whales, and also human beings—a species that now dominates life on earth.

With the exception of three highly unusual mammals called monotremes, all mammals give birth to live young. Some young mammals are completely helpless when they are born, while others are relatively well developed. Despite these differences, all young mammals initially rely on their mothers for food, and stay with them until they are ready to fend for themselves. This close link between mother and offspring produces strong family ties, and allows young mammals to learn by copying their parents' behavior.

Mammals evolved from a group of reptiles called therapsids. The earliest true mammals, appearing over 200 million years ago, were only 5 cm (2 in) long and probably spent at least some of their lives in trees. These tiny mammals resembled shrews with four roughly equal short legs and sharp claws. Since that time mammals have evolved an extraordinary variety of body shapes and sizes.

Mammals have adapted to some of the most extreme habitats on earth. They are warm-blooded, or endothermic, meaning that they maintain their body temperature within a narrow range despite changes in the environment. Polar bears survive on Arctic ice, while Arctic foxes can sleep on open snow in temperatures as low as –68° C (-90° F). Camels and kangaroo rats live in deserts, and can tolerate blazing temperatures that would kill many animals from cooler habitats.

See Types of Mammals; Pictures of Mammals

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