Mammals live in many habitats, including deserts, wetlands, taiga, and tundra. In this article, we look at how they survive in some of the most varied habitats on Earth.
Mammals live in many habitats, including deserts, the Arctic, oceans, forests, mountains, tundra, grasslands, and savannas.
Mammals are prevalent in comparison to reptiles and amphibians. There are also many more types of mammals and varying species within those families.
If you go to almost any part of the world, you should find evidence of mammalian activity. But, it might not be the type of mammals you are used to.
From tropics and deserts to temperate zones and polar regions, every type of climate has a diverse ecology of mammalian species. Within those climates, you can see various adaptations and behaviors that further separate these animals.
So, what habitats do mammals live in, and why are they so widespread?
Why Are Mammals So Widespread?
The diversity of mammals and their ability to colonize many habitats comes down to a few factors.
Firstly, mammals showcase some of the broadest examples of physiology. When you look at birds, they all have different bills, sizes, and colorations. But they are all creatures with a beak, two wings, and two legs. We can easily see the similarities, even with flightless birds.
With mammals, it is much broader. You can create a lineup of a dolphin, lion, elephant, kangaroo, monkey, and rat and struggle to see how they are all related. You can’t even say that they all have the same number of legs or they all have fur. They are all creatures with mammary glands with warm blood that provide live young – even if one develops theirs in a pouch.
Warm blood and four legs are advantages when spreading across the globe. Warm-blooded mammals can regulate their body temperature so well that they have a better chance in extreme temperatures.
Cold-blooded reptiles will shut down if they get too cold and can’t bask in heat to regain their energy. Reptiles will struggle in cold climates. Birds can migrate and spend winters in summers in different habitats.
The other reason is that there are so many differences and adaptations in families of mammals.
One of the world’s most successful types of mammals is the fox. They are found, in some form, across most continents and climates. While the red fox is an opportunist that can survive in many locations, others are more specialized for their chosen habitat.
The arctic fox is a polar species that changes its coat in winter. It also has more rounded features and shorter legs to reduce surface area and prevent heat loss and frostbite.
Desert-dwelling foxes are often short and sleek for life on the sand. They have more prominent ears for heat regulation and detecting prey at night. Other features of foxes are still a mystery, such as the square head of the Tibetan fox.
Have you ever wondered how fish live in freezing winter waters? Please find out more in this article I wrote.
Terrestrial, Marine, And Semi-aquatic Mammals.
One of the reasons that mammals have been so successful in all habitats is that they have diversified so much over millennia. The evolutionary tree shows mammals in various forms over such broad branches.
One example is how mammals evolved to become either marine, aquatic, or semi-aquatic mammals compared to their terrestrial counterparts.
The most striking examples here are whales and dolphins. Growing up, we are accustomed to fish living in the sea, birds in the air, and mammals on the land. But it isn’t always that simple.
Whales and dolphins are mammals with mammary glands and live young. But, they couldn’t look further removed from most land mammals. The limbs became fins; they shed their fur and lived in the ocean. The need to surface to breathe distinguishes them from the other non-mammalian creatures of the sea.
Seals, sea lions, and walruses have similarities in their reliance on flippers to propel them through the water, the blubbery buoyant layers, and the lack of fur. However, these aquatic mammals are equipped to spend long periods on land to breed – however clumsy they may appear.
On the other hand, semi-aquatic mammals split their time between the land and the water, typically in lakes and rivers. They are well-suited to both, with the form, limbs, and coat of terrestrial mammals and adaptations for hunting in the water. Their fur is more waterproof, they often have webbed limbs and muscular tails, and some can even close their nostrils under the water. Otters and beavers are great examples.
Mammals In Harsh Environments
You will find some form of mammal in that habitat wherever you go. Predator and prey creatures will have adapted to find their niche and make the most of the landscape.
On one side of this, you have the mammals found in polar regions. There aren’t many animals that can get by in these environments. But you will discover that arctic species tend to have thicker coats in the winter and will blend themselves into the snow.
Polar bears are pure white and are giant bears. This ensures that they have enough fat reserves for winter. Snowshoe hares turn their coat white for winter. Both also have larger-than-average feet to stop them from sinking into the snow.
On the other side, all those animals survive in desert climates. Again, it is just the genuinely hardy and well-adapted that can handle these conditions.
Common adaptations include pale fur to blend in with the sand and potentially help with heat regulation and large ears. These ears allow them to cool down more because of the number of blood vessels in that surface area.
Many of these smaller mammals will also create dens to escape the hottest part of the day and become more active at night.
However, it isn’t just broader climates where you see these changes.
Habitat doesn’t just relate to forest, polar, desert, or plains animals. More minor distinctions must be made about the habitat and home range of animals within these areas. Let’s take a woodland or a forest environment, for example. There are going to be plenty of terrestrial mammals that are both prey and predator species here.
In a North American forest, you could have bears, bobcats, and wolves wandering the forest floor searching for food. Deer species, rabbits, and other prey will make their homes here.
This habitat wouldn’t work if all mammals had the same habits and homes. It is all about finding that niche for survival. A place to live, raise young, and find suitable food without competition from other species. So, mammals diversify to take advantage of the environment.
These creatures are known as arboreal species because they spend so much time up in the trees and have become adapted to this life. It is safer up in the trees, and they can find fruit and seeds to eat.
They can handle climbing the trunks and leaping between branches. This is a good home for squirrels, porcupines, and chipmunks in those forests. You will see monkey species at home in trees and species of marten in other continents, and even a tree kangaroo.
Some arboreal animals have clever adaptations to make life even easier up there. Squirrel species have extra mobility in their ankle joints so that they can go head-first down the trunk. Some flying squirrels have flaps of skin to help them glide between trees.
Some porcupines and monkeys have prehensile tails to grip branches, almost like having a fifth limb.
Underground And In The Sky
Living your life underground as much as possible for some creatures makes more sense. Burrowers include rodents, like voles and shrews, as well as rabbits. They will create networks of burrows with nesting chambers, places to sleep, and food stores. These keep them safe from predators.
Others, such as moles, adapted to spend much of their time underground. Moles have lost the need for good eyesight but can quickly feel the vibrations of prey like worms. The golden mole is, in fact, completely blind.
Finally, we can’t overlook that a small group took to the sky. Bats are another highly diverse group of animals, with some tiny little species and other massive fruit bats. They do share similar traits. They have developed membranes between their arms and body that act as wings, and many use echolocation for hunting for prey at night.
Mammals Live In All Habitats
You can find mammals anywhere when. Look at the fruit bats gliding through the sky and the gigantic whales in the oceans. No other kingdom has such a range, a diverse range of creatures, or contrasting adaptations within each habitat.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.