Monotremes probably split from the lineage leading to other mammals sometime in the Mesozoic. They are often placed in a separate subclass from other mammals, Prototheria. They retain many characters of their therapsid ancestors (for example, a complex pectoral girdle, laying of eggs rather than bearing live young, limbs oriented with humerus and femur held lateral to body, and a cloaca). The skulls of monotremes are almost birdlike in appearance, with a long rostrum and smooth external appearance. Modern monotremes lack teeth as adults; sutures are hard to see; the rostrum is elongate, beak-like, and covered by a leathery sheath; and lacrimal bones are absent. Monotremes have several important mammalian characters, however, including fur (but they lack vibrissae), a four chambered heart, a single dentary bone, three middle ear bones, and the ability to lactate.

Besides the absence of teeth, lacrimals, and obvious sutures, monotremes share a number of skeletal characteristics. On the skulls, the jugals are reduced or absent, the dentary is a slender bone with only a vestige of a coronoid process, the angle of the dentary is not inflected medially (unlike that of marsupials), auditory bullae are missing (part of the middle ear is enclosed by tympanic rings), and much of the wall of the braincase is made up by the petrosal rather than the alisphenoid (unlike all other modern mammals). Postcranially, the skeleton of monotremes is also unique among mammals. It is a fascinating mosaic of primitive characteristics inherited from therapsids but found in no other living mammals, and modifications probably related to the burrowing habits of modern monetremes. Their shoulder girdles are complex, including the standard components of modern mammals ( scapula and clavicle), but also additional elements including coracoid, epicoracoid, and interclavicle. The scapula, however, is simplified, lacking a supraspinous fossa. The shoulder girdle is much more rigidly attached to the axillary skeleton than in other mammals. Femur and humerus are held roughly parallel to the ground when the animal walks, more in the fashion of therapsids and most modern reptiles than like modern mammals. Ribs are found on the neck (cervical) vertebrae as well as the chest (thoracic) vertebrae; in all other modern mammals, they are restricted to the thoracic region.

Another interesting skeletal characteristic of monotremes is the large epipubic bones in the pelvic region. Epipubic bones were originally thought to be related to having a pouch, but they are found in both males and females. They also occur in all species of marsupials, whether a pouch is present or not (not all marsupials have a pouch). It is now thought that epipubic bones are a vestige of the skeleton of therapsids, providing members of that group with extra attachments for abdominal muscles to support the weight of the hindquarters.

Monotremes are endothermic, but they have unusually low metabolic rates and maintain a body temperature that is lower than that of most other mammals.

The eggs layed by monotremes are small (13-15 mm diameter) and covered by a leathery shell. The number of eggs laid is small, usually 1-3, and they are placed in the mother's pouch. They contain a large yolk, which is concentrated at one end of the egg very much like the yolk of a bird's egg. Only the left ovary is functional in the platypus, but both produce eggs in the echidna. Like the eggs of birds, monotreme eggs are incubated and hatched outside the body of the mother. Incubation lasts about 12 days. The young, which are tiny and at a very early stage of development when they hatch, break out of the eggs using a "milk tooth. They are protected in a temporary pouch in echidnas but not platypuses. They are fed milk produced by mammary glands; the milk is secreted onto the skin within the pouch and sucked or lapped up by the babies. Weaning takes place when the young are 16-20 weeks old.

All male monotremes have spurs on their ankles that are presumed to be used in fighting and in defense. In one family ( Ornithorhynchidae), a groove along the spur carries poison secreted by adjacent glands.

Monotremes are restricted to Australia and New Guinea. Their fossil record is very poor; the earliest fossil attributed to this group is from the early Cretaceous. A fossil from Argentina suggests that the monotremes were more widely distributed early in their history.

References and literature cited

Feldhamer, G. A., L. C. Drickamer, S. H. Vessey, and J. F. Merritt. 1999. Mammalogy. Adaptation, Diversity, and Ecology. WCB McGraw-Hill, Boston. xii+563pp.

Marshall, L. G. 1984. Monotremes and marsupials. Pp. 59-115 in Anderson, S. and J. Knox Jones, Jr., eds. Orders and Families of Recent Mammals of the World. John Wiley & Sons, New York. xii+686 pp.

Vaughan, T. A. 1986. Mammalogy. Third Edition. Saunders College Publishing, Fort Worth. vi+576 pp.

Vaughan, T. A., J. M. Ryan, N. J. Czaplewski. 2000. Mammalogy. Fourth Edition. Saunders College Publishing, Philadelphia. vii+565pp.

Click on the name of a family to learn more:

Family Ornithorhynchidae

Family Tachyglossidae


Anna Bess Sorin (author), Biology Dept., University of Memphis, Phil Myers (author), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


uses touch to communicate