Body Plans

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the various types of body plans that occur in animals

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

Asymmetry is a unique feature of Parazoa (Figure 1). These ‘beside animals’ are considered animals because they lack the ability to make their own food.

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 2a and 2b). 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 2. 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 3. 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 3), 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 4). 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 4 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 4. 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 5. 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 5. 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)

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