Learning Outcomes

  • Identify the derived character of craniates that sets them apart from other chordates
The skull wraps around the upper part of the head. The mandible is the lower jaw. Other bones complete the skull.

Figure 1. Craniata, including this fish (Dunkleosteus sp.), are characterized by the presence of a cranium, mandible, and other facial bones. (credit: “Steveoc 86”/Wikimedia Commons)

Subphylum Vertebrata (Craniata)

cranium is a bony, cartilaginous, or fibrous structure surrounding the brain, jaw, and facial bones (Figure 1). Most bilaterally symmetrical animals have a head; of these, those that have a cranium comprise the clade Craniata/Vertebrata, which includes the primitively jawless Myxini (hagfishes), Petromyzontida (lampreys), and all of the organisms called “vertebrates.” (We should note that the Myxini have a cranium but lack a backbone.)

Members of the phylum Craniata/Vertebrata display the five characteristic features of the chordates; however, members of this group also share derived characteristics that distinguish them from invertebrate chordates. Vertebrates are named for the vertebral column, composed of vertebrae—a series of separate, irregularly shaped bones joined together to form a backbone (Figure 2). Initially, the vertebrae form in segments around the embryonic notochord, but eventually replace it in adults. In most derived vertebrates, the notochord becomes the nucleus pulposus of the intervertebral discs that cushion and support adjacent vertebrae.

Photo shows a fish skeleton with a vertebral column extending back from the skull.

Figure 2 A vertebrate skeleton. Vertebrata are characterized by the presence of a backbone, such as the one that runs through the middle of this fish. All vertebrates are in the Craniata clade and have a cranium. (credit: Ernest V. More; taken at Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.)

The relationship of the vertebrates to the invertebrate chordates has been a matter of contention, but although these cladistic relationships are still being examined, it appears that the Craniata/Vertebrata are a monophyletic group that shares the five basic chordate characteristics with the other two subphyla, Urochordata and Cephalochordata. Traditional phylogenies place the cephalochordates as a sister clade to the chordates, a view that has been supported by most current molecular analyses. This hypothesis is further supported by the discovery of a fossil in China from the genus Haikouella. This organism seems to be an intermediate form between cephalochordates and vertebrates. The Haikouella fossils are about 530 million years old and appear similar to modern lancelets. These organisms had a brain and eyes, as do vertebrates, but lack the skull found in craniates.[1] This evidence suggests that vertebrates arose during the Cambrian explosion.

Vertebrates are the largest group of chordates, with more than 62,000 living species, which are grouped based on anatomical and physiological traits. More than one classification and naming scheme is used for these animals. Here we will consider the traditional groups Agnatha, Chondrichthyes, Osteichthyes, Amphibia, Reptilia, Aves, and Mammalia, which constitute classes in the subphylum Vertebrata/Craniata. Virtually all modern cladists classify birds within Reptilia, which correctly reflects their evolutionary heritage. Thus, we now have the nonavian reptiles and the avian reptiles in our reptilian classification. We consider them separately only for convenience. Further, we will consider hagfishes and lampreys together as jawless fishes, the Agnatha, although emerging classification schemes separate them into chordate jawless fishes (the hagfishes) and vertebrate jawless fishes (the lampreys).

Animals that possess jaws are known as gnathostomes, which means “jawed mouth.” Gnathostomes include fishes and tetrapods. Tetrapod literally means “four-footed,” which refers to the phylogenetic history of various land vertebrates, even though in some of the tetrapods, the limbs may have been modified for purposes other than walking. Tetrapods include amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, and technically could also refer to the extinct fishlike groups that gave rise to the tetrapods. Tetrapods can be further divided into two groups: amphibians and amniotes. Amniotes are animals whose eggs contain four extraembryonic membranes (yolk sac, amnion, chorion, and allantois) that provide nutrition and a water-retaining environment for their embryos. Amniotes are adapted for terrestrial living, and include mammals, reptiles, and birds.

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  1. Chen, J. Y., Huang, D. Y., and Li, C. W., “An early Cambrian craniate-like chordate,” Nature 402 (1999): 518–522, doi:10.1038/990080.