All mammals have hair at some point during their development, and most mammals have hair their entire lives. Adults of some species lose most or all of their hair but, even in mammals like whales and dolphins, hair is present at least during some phase of ontogeny. 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 or "vibrissae") have a sensory function, letting an animal know when it is in contact with an object in its environment. Vibrissae are often richly innervated and well-supplied with muscles that control their position. Third, hair affects appearance through its color and pattern. It may serve to camouflage predators or prey, to warn predators of a defensive mechanism (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; or the 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).
Mammals are typically characterized by their highly differentiated teeth. Teeth are replaced just once during an individual's life (a condition called diphyodonty). Other characteristics found in most mammals include: a lower jaw made up of a single bone, the dentary; four-chambered hearts; a secondary palate separating air and food passages in the mouth; a muscular diaphragm separating thoracic and abdominal cavities; a highly developed brain; endothermy and homeothermy; separate sexes with the sex of an embryo being determined by the presence of a Y or 2 X chromosomes; and internal fertilization.
Often, characteristics of skulls and dentition are used to define and differentiate mammalian groups. To make these easier to comprehend within the accounts of lower mammalian taxa, we provide links to dorsal, ventral, and lateral views of the skull of a dog on which the major bones, foramina, and processes have been labelled. Closeups of the basicranial region, orbital region, and lingual and labial views of a mandible are also available. A partially labeled full skeleton of a raccoon has also been prepared.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; heterothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry ; polymorphic ; venomous
Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike; female larger; male larger; sexes colored or patterned differently; female more colorful; male more colorful; sexes shaped differently; ornamentation
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