Animal Form and Function

Describe common forms and functions in the animal kingdom

Even though members of the animal kingdom are incredibly diverse, most animals share certain features that distinguish them from organisms in other kingdoms. All animals are eukaryotic, multicellular organisms, and almost all animals have a complex tissue structure with differentiated and specialized tissues. Most animals are motile, at least during certain life stages. All animals require a source of food and are therefore heterotrophic, ingesting other living or dead organisms; this feature distinguishes them from autotrophic organisms, such as most plants, which synthesize their own nutrients through photosynthesis. As heterotrophs, animals may be carnivores, herbivores, omnivores, or parasites (Figure 1). Most animals reproduce sexually, and the offspring pass through a series of developmental stages that establish a determined and fixed body plan. The body plan refers to the morphology of an animal, determined by developmental cues.

Part a shows a bear with a large fish in its mouth. Part b shows a heart in a jar. Long, threadlike worms extend from the heart.

Figure 1. All animals are heterotrophs that derive energy from food. The (a) black bear is an omnivore, eating both plants and animals. The (b) heartworm Dirofilaria immitis is a parasite that derives energy from its hosts. It spends its larval stage in mosquitoes and its adult stage infesting the heart of dogs and other mammals, as shown here. (credit a: modification of work by USDA Forest Service; credit b: modification of work by Clyde Robinson)

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the various types of body plans that occur in animals
  • Describe limits on animal size and shape
  • Relate bioenergetics to body size, levels of activity, and the environment

Body Plans

At a very basic level of classification, true animals can be largely divided into three groups based on the type of symmetry of their body plan: radially symmetrical, bilaterally symmetrical, and asymmetrical. All types of symmetry are well suited to meet the unique demands of a particular animal’s lifestyle.

Several sponges, which form irregular, bumpy blobs on the sea floor.

Figure 2. The sponge is asymmetrical. (credit: modification of work by Andrew Turner)

Asymmetry is a unique feature of Parazoa (Figure 2).

Radial symmetry is the arrangement of body parts around a central axis, as is seen in a drinking glass or pie. Only a few animal groups display radial symmetry. It results in animals having top and bottom surfaces but no left and right sides, or front or back. The two halves of a radially symmetrical animal may be described as the side with a mouth or “oral side,” and the side without a mouth (the “aboral side”). This form of symmetry marks the body plans of animals in the phyla Ctenophora and Cnidaria, including jellyfish and adult sea anemones (Figure 3a and 3b). Radial symmetry equips these sea creatures (which may be sedentary or only capable of slow movement or floating) to experience the environment equally from all directions.

Part a shows a jellyfish with long, slender tentacles, radiating from a flexible, disc-shaped body. Part b shows an anemone sitting on the sea floor with thick tentacles, radiating up from a cup-shaped body.

Figure 3. The (a) jellyfish and (b) anemone are radially symmetrical. (credit a: modification of work by Robert Freiburger; credit b: modification of work by Samuel Chow)

A black butterfly with two symmetrical wings.

Figure 4. The butterfly is bilaterally symmetrical. (credit: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

Bilateral symmetry involves the division of the animal through a sagittal plane, resulting in two mirror image, right and left halves, such as those of a butterfly (Figure 4), crab, or human body. Animals with bilateral symmetry have a “head” and “tail” (anterior vs. posterior), front and back (dorsal vs. ventral), and right and left sides (Figure 5). All true animals except those with radial symmetry are bilaterally symmetrical. The evolution of bilateral symmetry that allowed for the formation of anterior and posterior (head and tail) ends promoted a phenomenon called cephalization, which refers to the collection of an organized nervous system at the animal’s anterior end. In contrast to radial symmetry, which is best suited for stationary or limited-motion lifestyles, bilateral symmetry allows for streamlined and directional motion. In evolutionary terms, this simple form of symmetry promoted active mobility and increased sophistication of resource-seeking and predator-prey relationships.

Animals in the phylum Echinodermata (such as sea stars, sand dollars, and sea urchins) display radial symmetry as adults, but their larval stages exhibit bilateral symmetry. This is termed secondary radial symmetry. They are believed to have evolved from bilaterally symmetrical animals; thus, they are classified as bilaterally symmetrical.

Watch this video to see a quick sketch of the different types of body symmetry.

Animal Body Planes and Cavities

A standing vertebrate animal can be divided by several planes. A sagittal plane divides the body into right and left portions. A midsagittal plane divides the body exactly in the middle, making two equal right and left halves. A frontal plane (also called a coronal plane) separates the front from the back. A transverse plane (or, horizontal plane) divides the animal into upper and lower portions. This is sometimes called a cross section, and, if the transverse cut is at an angle, it is called an oblique plane. Figure 5 illustrates these planes on a goat (a four-legged animal) and a human being.

Illustration A shows the planes of a goat body. The midsagittal plane runs through the middle of the goat from front to back, separating the right and left sides. The frontal plane also runs from front to back, but separates the upper half of the body from the lower half. The transverse plane runs across the middle of the goat, and separate the front and back halves of the body. Illustration B shows the planes of a human body. The midsagittal plane runs from top to bottom and separates the right and left halves of the body. The Frontal plane also runs from top to bottom and separates the front and back halves of the body. The Transverse plane dissects the middle of the body between the chest and abdomen, separating the top of the body from the bottom. The midline is an imaginary line running through the middle of the body, from top to bottom.

Figure 5. Shown are the planes of a quadruped goat and a bipedal human. The midsagittal plane divides the body exactly in half, into right and left portions. The frontal plane divides the front and back, and the transverse plane divides the body into upper and lower portions.

Vertebrate animals have a number of defined body cavities, as illustrated in Figure 6. Two of these are major cavities that contain smaller cavities within them. The dorsal cavity contains the cranial and the vertebral (or spinal) cavities. The ventral cavity contains the thoracic cavity, which in turn contains the pleural cavity around the lungs and the pericardial cavity, which surrounds the heart. The ventral cavity also contains the abdominopelvic cavity, which can be separated into the abdominal and the pelvic cavities.

Illustration shows a cross-sectional side view of the upper part of a human body. The entire head region above the eyes and to the back of the head and a long thin strip from this region down the back is shaded to indicate the dorsal cavity. The head is labeled cranial cavity and the long thin region down the back is the spinal cavity. A large oblong area shaded at the front of the body indicates the ventral cavity. It is labeled from top to bottom as thoracic cavity, diaphragm (thin line separating regions), abdominal cavity, and pelvic cavity. The abdominal and pelvic cavities are separated by a thin dashed line and together they are labeled the abdominopelvic cavity.

Figure 6. Vertebrate animals have two major body cavities. The dorsal cavity, indicated in green, contains the cranial and the spinal cavity. The ventral cavity, indicated in yellow, contains the thoracic cavity and the abdominopelvic cavity. The thoracic cavity is separated from the abdominopelvic cavity by the diaphragm. The thoracic cavity is separated into the abdominal cavity and the pelvic cavity by an imaginary line parallel to the pelvis bones. (credit: modification of work by NCI)

Animal Size and Shape

Animals with bilateral symmetry that live in water tend to have a fusiform shape: this is a tubular shaped body that is tapered at both ends. This shape decreases the drag on the body as it moves through water and allows the animal to swim at high speeds. Table 1 lists the maximum speed of various animals. Certain types of sharks can swim at fifty kilometers an hour and some dolphins at 32 to 40 kilometers per hour. Land animals frequently travel faster, although the tortoise and snail are significantly slower than cheetahs. Another difference in the adaptations of aquatic and land-dwelling organisms is that aquatic organisms are constrained in shape by the forces of drag in the water since water has higher viscosity than air. On the other hand, land-dwelling organisms are constrained mainly by gravity, and drag is relatively unimportant. For example, most adaptations in birds are for gravity not for drag.

Table 1. Maximum Speed of Assorted Land Marine Animals
Animal Speed (kmh) Speed (mph)
Cheetah 113 70
Quarter horse 77 48
Fox 68 42
Shortfin mako shark 50 31
Domestic house cat 48 30
Human 45 28
Dolphin 32–40 20–25
Mouse 13 8
Snail 0.05 0.03

Most animals have an exoskeleton, including insects, spiders, scorpions, horseshoe crabs, centipedes, and crustaceans. Scientists estimate that, of insects alone, there are over 30 million species on our planet. The exoskeleton is a hard covering or shell that provides benefits to the animal, such as protection against damage from predators and from water loss (for land animals); it also provides for the attachments of muscles.

As the tough and resistant outer cover of an arthropod, the exoskeleton may be constructed of a tough polymer such as chitin and is often biomineralized with materials such as calcium carbonate. This is fused to the animal’s epidermis. Ingrowths of the exoskeleton, called apodemes, function as attachment sites for muscles, similar to tendons in more advanced animals (Figure 7).

Illustration shows a crab claw with a small, upper portion that pivots relative to a large, lower portion. The apodemes are located on the large portion, above and below the pivot point.

Figure 7. Apodemes are ingrowths on arthropod exoskeletons to which muscles attach. The apodemes on this crab leg are located above and below the fulcrum of the claw. Contraction of muscles attached to the apodemes pulls the claw closed.

In order to grow, the animal must first synthesize a new exoskeleton underneath the old one and then shed or molt the original covering. This limits the animal’s ability to grow continually, and may limit the individual’s ability to mature if molting does not occur at the proper time. The thickness of the exoskeleton must be increased significantly to accommodate any increase in weight. It is estimated that a doubling of body size increases body weight by a factor of eight. The increasing thickness of the chitin necessary to support this weight limits most animals with an exoskeleton to a relatively small size. The same principles apply to endoskeletons, but they are more efficient because muscles are attached on the outside, making it easier to compensate for increased mass.

An animal with an endoskeleton has its size determined by the amount of skeletal system it needs in order to support the other tissues and the amount of muscle it needs for movement. As the body size increases, both bone and muscle mass increase. The speed achievable by the animal is a balance between its overall size and the bone and muscle that provide support and movement.

Limiting Effects of Diffusion on Size and Development

The exchange of nutrients and wastes between a cell and its watery environment occurs through the process of diffusion. All living cells are bathed in liquid, whether they are in a single-celled organism or a multicellular one. Diffusion is effective over a specific distance and limits the size that an individual cell can attain. If a cell is a single-celled microorganism, such as an amoeba, it can satisfy all of its nutrient and waste needs through diffusion. If the cell is too large, then diffusion is ineffective and the center of the cell does not receive adequate nutrients nor is it able to effectively dispel its waste.

An important concept in understanding how efficient diffusion is as a means of transport is the surface to volume ratio. Recall that any three-dimensional object has a surface area and volume; the ratio of these two quantities is the surface-to-volume ratio. Consider a cell shaped like a perfect sphere: it has a surface area of 4πr2, and a volume of (4/3)πr3. The surface-to-volume ratio of a sphere is 3/r; as the cell gets bigger, its surface to volume ratio decreases, making diffusion less efficient. The larger the size of the sphere, or animal, the less surface area for diffusion it possesses.

The solution to producing larger organisms is for them to become multicellular. Specialization occurs in complex organisms, allowing cells to become more efficient at doing fewer tasks. For example, circulatory systems bring nutrients and remove waste, while respiratory systems provide oxygen for the cells and remove carbon dioxide from them. Other organ systems have developed further specialization of cells and tissues and efficiently control body functions. Moreover, surface-to-volume ratio applies to other areas of animal development, such as the relationship between muscle mass and cross-sectional surface area in supporting skeletons, and in the relationship between muscle mass and the generation of dissipation of heat.

Visit this interactive site to see an entire animal (a zebrafish embryo) at the cellular and sub-cellular level. Use the zoom and navigation functions for a virtual nanoscopy exploration.

Bioenergetics

All animals must obtain their energy from food they ingest or absorb. These nutrients are converted to adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for short-term storage and use by all cells. Some animals store energy for slightly longer times as glycogen, and others store energy for much longer times in the form of triglycerides housed in specialized adipose tissues. No energy system is one hundred percent efficient, and an animal’s metabolism produces waste energy in the form of heat. If an animal can conserve that heat and maintain a relatively constant body temperature, it is classified as a warm-blooded animal and called an endotherm. The insulation used to conserve the body heat comes in the forms of fur, fat, or feathers. The absence of insulation in ectothermic animals increases their dependence on the environment for body heat.

The amount of energy expended by an animal over a specific time is called its metabolic rate. The rate is measured variously in joules, calories, or kilocalories (1000 calories). Carbohydrates and proteins contain about 4.5 to 5 kcal/g, and fat contains about 9 kcal/g. Metabolic rate is estimated as the basal metabolic rate (BMR) in endothermic animals at rest and as the standard metabolic rate (SMR) in ectotherms. Human males have a BMR of 1600 to 1800 kcal/day, and human females have a BMR of 1300 to 1500 kcal/day. Even with insulation, endothermal animals require extensive amounts of energy to maintain a constant body temperature. An ectotherm such as an alligator has an SMR of 60 kcal/day.

Energy Requirements Related to Body Size

Smaller endothermic animals have a greater surface area for their mass than larger ones (Table 2). Therefore, smaller animals lose heat at a faster rate than larger animals and require more energy to maintain a constant internal temperature. This results in a smaller endothermic animal having a higher BMR, per body weight, than a larger endothermic animal.

Table 2. Relative Metabolic Rates
Species Mass Metabolic Rate
A photo of a mouse

A mouse

35 g 890 mm3 02/g body mass/hr
A photo of an elephant

An elephant

4,500,000 g 75 mm3 02/g body mass/hr

Energy Requirements Related to Levels of Activity

The more active an animal is, the more energy is needed to maintain that activity, and the higher its BMR or SMR. The average daily rate of energy consumption is about two to four times an animal’s BMR or SMR. Humans are more sedentary than most animals and have an average daily rate of only 1.5 times the BMR. The diet of an endothermic animal is determined by its BMR. For example: the type of grasses, leaves, or shrubs that an herbivore eats affects the number of calories that it takes in. The relative caloric content of herbivore foods, in descending order, is tall grasses > legumes > short grasses > forbs (any broad-leaved plant, not a grass) > subshrubs > annuals/biennials.

Energy Requirements Related to Environment

Animals adapt to extremes of temperature or food availability through torpor. Torpor is a process that leads to a decrease in activity and metabolism and allows animals to survive adverse conditions. Torpor can be used by animals for long periods, such as entering a state of hibernation during the winter months, in which case it enables them to maintain a reduced body temperature. During hibernation, ground squirrels can achieve an abdominal temperature of 0° C (32° F), while a bear’s internal temperature is maintained higher at about 37° C (99° F).

If torpor occurs during the summer months with high temperatures and little water, it is called estivation. Some desert animals use this to survive the harshest months of the year. Torpor can occur on a daily basis; this is seen in bats and hummingbirds. While endothermy is limited in smaller animals by surface to volume ratio, some organisms can be smaller and still be endotherms because they employ daily torpor during the part of the day that is coldest. This allows them to conserve energy during the colder parts of the day, when they consume more energy to maintain their body temperature.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.