Mammal classification has been through several iterations since Carl Linnaeus initially defined the class. No classification system is universally accepted; McKenna & Bell (1997) and Wilson & Reader (2005) provide useful recent compendiums. George Gaylord Simpson's "Principles of Classification and a Classification of Mammals" (AMNH Bulletin v. 85, 1945) provides systematics of mammal origins and relationships that were universally taught until the end of the 20th century. Since Simpson's classification, the paleontological record has been recalibrated, and the intervening years have seen much debate and progress concerning the theoretical underpinnings of systematization itself, partly through the new concept of cladistics. Though field work gradually made Simpson's classification outdated, it remains the closest thing to an official classification of mammals.
Most mammals, including the six most species-rich orders, belong to the placental group. The three largest orders in numbers of species are Rodentia: mice, rats, porcupines, beavers, capybaras and other gnawing mammals; Chiroptera: bats; and Soricomorpha: shrews, moles and solenodons. The next three biggest orders, depending on the biological classification scheme used, are the Primates including the apes, monkeys and lemurs; the Cetartiodactyla including whales and even-toed ungulates; and the Carnivora which includes cats, dogs, weasels, bears, seals and allies. According to Mammal Species of the World, 5,416 species were identified in 2006. These were grouped into 1,229 genera, 153 families and 29 orders. In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) completed a five-year Global Mammal Assessment for its IUCN Red List, which counted 5,488 species. According to a research published in the Journal of Mammalogy in 2018, the number of recognized mammal species is 6,495 species included 96 recently extinct.
The word "mammal" is modern, from the scientific name Mammalia coined by Carl Linnaeus in 1758, derived from the Latin mamma ("teat, pap"). In an influential 1988 paper, Timothy Rowe defined Mammalia phylogenetically as the crown group of mammals, the clade consisting of the most recent common ancestor of living monotremes (echidnas and platypuses) and therian mammals (marsupials and placentals) and all descendants of that ancestor. Since this ancestor lived in the Jurassic period, Rowe's definition excludes all animals from the earlier Triassic, despite the fact that Triassic fossils in the Haramiyida have been referred to the Mammalia since the mid-19th century. If Mammalia is considered as the crown group, its origin can be roughly dated as the first known appearance of animals more closely related to some extant mammals than to others. Ambondro is more closely related to monotremes than to therian mammals while Amphilestes and 167 million years ago in the Middle Jurassic, this is a reasonable estimate for the appearance of the crown group.
T. S. Kemp has provided a more traditional definition: "synapsids that possess a dentary–squamosal jaw articulation and occlusion between upper and lower molars with a transverse component to the movement" or, equivalently in Kemp's view, the clade originating with the last common ancestor of Sinoconodon and living mammals. The earliest known synapsid satisfying Kemp's definitions is 225 Ma, so the appearance of mammals in this broader sense can be given this Late Triassic date.
In 1997, the mammals were comprehensively revised by Malcolm C. McKenna and Susan K. Bell, which has resulted in the McKenna/Bell classification. Their 1997 book, Classification of Mammals above the Species Level, is a comprehensive work on the systematics, relationships and occurrences of all mammal taxa, living and extinct, down through the rank of genus, though molecular genetic data challenge several of the higher level groupings. The authors worked together as paleontologists at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. McKenna inherited the project from Simpson and, with Bell, constructed a completely updated hierarchical system, covering living and extinct taxa that reflects the historical genealogy of Mammalia.
Extinct groups are represented by a dagger (†).
Molecular classification of placentals
Molecular studies based on DNA analysis have suggested new relationships among mammal families over the last few years. Most of these findings have been independently validated by retrotransposon presence/absence data. Classification systems based on molecular studies reveal three major groups or lineages of placental mammals—Afrotheria, Xenarthra and Boreoeutheria—which diverged in the Cretaceous. The relationships between these three lineages is contentious, and all three possible different hypotheses have been proposed with respect to which group is basal. These hypotheses are Atlantogenata (basal Boreoeutheria), Epitheria (basal Xenarthra) and Exafroplacentalia (basal Afrotheria). Boreoeutheria in turn contains two major lineages—Euarchontoglires and Laurasiatheria.
Estimates for the divergence times between these three placental groups range from 105 to 120 million years ago, depending on the type of DNA used (such as nuclear or mitochondrial) and varying interpretations of paleogeographic data.
The cladogram above is based on Tarver et al. (2016)
Group I: Superorder Afrotheria
Group II: Superorder Xenarthra
- Order Pilosa: sloths and anteaters (neotropical)
- Order Cingulata: armadillos and extinct relatives (Americas)
Group III: Magnaorder Boreoeutheria