Classifying Animals

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify key features scientists use to classify animals

Scientists have developed a classification scheme that categorizes all members of the animal kingdom, although there are exceptions to most “rules” governing animal classification (Figure 1). Animals are primarily classified according to morphological and developmental characteristics, such as a body plan. One of the most prominent features of the body plan of true animals is that they are morphologically symmetrical. This means that their distribution of body parts is balanced along an axis. Additional characteristics include the number of tissue layers formed during development, the presence or absence of an internal body cavity, and other features of embryological development, such as the origin of the mouth and anus.

True animals are divided into those with radial versus bilateral symmetry. Generally, the simpler and often non-motile animals display radial symmetry. Animals with radial symmetry are also generally characterized by the development of two embryological germ layers, the endoderm and ectoderm, whereas animals with bilateral symmetry are generally characterized by the development of a third embryological germ layer, the mesoderm. Animals with three germ layers, called triploblasts, are further characterized by the presence or absence of an internal body cavity called a coelom. The presence of a coelom affords many advantages, and animals with a coelom may be termed true coelomates or pseudocoelomates, depending on which tissue gives rise to the coelom. Coelomates are further divided into one of two groups called protostomes and deuterostomes, based on a number of developmental characteristics, including differences in zygote cleavage and method of coelom formation.

The phylogenetic tree of metazoans, or animals, branches into parazoans with no tissues and eumetazoans with specialized tissues. Parazoans include Porifera, or sponges. Eumetazoans branch into Radiata, diploblastic animals with radial symmetry, and Bilateria, triploblastic animals with bilateral symmetry. Radiata includes cnidarians and ctenophores (comb jellies). Bilateria branches into Acoela, which have no body cavity, and Protostomia and Deuterostomia, which possess a body cavity. Deuterostomes include chordates and echinoderms. Protostomia branches into Lophotrochozoa and Ecdysozoa. Ecdysozoa includes arthropods and nematodes, or roundworms. Lophotrochozoa includes Mollusca, Annelida, Brachopoda, Ectoprocta, Rotifera, and Platyhelminthes.

Figure 1. The phylogenetic tree of animals is based on morphological, fossil, and genetic evidence.

Practice Question

Which of the following statements is false?

  1. Eumetazoans have specialized tissues and parazoans don’t.
  2. Lophotrochozoa and Ecdysozoa are both Bilataria.
  3. Acoela and Cnidaria both possess radial symmetry.
  4. Arthropods are more closely related to nematodes than they are to annelids.

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