Classes of Vertebrates

The subphylum Vertebrata click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced includes all of the familiar large animals and some rare and unusual ones as well.  The 7 living classes of vertebrates are distinguished mostly on the basis of their skeletal system, general environmental adaptation, and reproductive system.

subphylum: Vertebrata
class: Agnatha Chondrichthyes Osteichthyes Amphibia Reptilia Aves Mammalia

Three of the vertebrate classes are fish.   The most primitive of these is Agnatha click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  It consists of jawless fish that do not have scales.  These are the lampreys and hagfish.  Fish that have skeletons consisting of hard rubber-like cartilage rather than bone are members of the class Chondrichthyes click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  These are the sharks and rays.  All of the bony fish are members of the class Osteichthyes click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  Tuna, bass, salmon, and trout are examples of Osteichthyes.

2 photos--a ray and a bony fish
Ray (class Chondrichthyes) and bony fish (class Osteichthyes)

Animals in the class Amphibia click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced spend part of their lives under water and part on land.  Frogs, toads, and salamanders are amphibians.  Many of these species must keep their skin moist by periodically returning to wet areas.  All of them must return to water in order to reproduce because their eggs would dry out otherwise.  They start life with gills, like fish, and later develop lungs to breathe air.

2 photos--a salamander and a frog
Salamander and frog (class Amphibia)

The class Reptilia click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced includes turtles, snakes, lizards, alligators, and other large reptiles.  All of them have lungs to breathe on land and skin that does not need to be kept wet.  They produce an amniote click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced egg which usually has a calcium carbonate rich, leather hard shell that protects the embryo from drying out.  This is an advantage over fish and amphibians because the amniote egg can be laid on land where it is usually safer from predators than it would be in lakes, rivers, and oceans.

3 photos--a tortoise, a snake, and a lizard  
Tortoise, snake, and lizard (class Reptilia)
    Amniote egg

The class Aves click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced includes all the birds.  They also produce amniote eggs but usually give them greater protection from predators by laying them high off of the ground or in other relatively inaccessible locations.  In the case of both reptiles and birds, the eggs are fertilized within the reproductive tract of females.  There are other striking similarities between reptiles and birds in their anatomies and reproductive systems.  This is not surprising because birds are descendents of theropod dinosaurs (two-legged mostly carnivorous dinosaurs).

3 photos--a small yellow bird, a penguin, and an eagle

Birds (class Aves)

Dogs, cats, bears, humans and most other large animals today are members of the vertebrate class Mammalia click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  All mammals conceive their young within the reproductive tract of the mother and, after birth, nourish them with milk produced by their mammary glands click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  Mammals are heterodonts click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced with strong jaws.  That is to say, they have a variety of specialized teeth (incisors, canines, premolars, and molars).  This allows them to chew their food into small pieces before swallowing it.  Subsequently, they can eat any size plant or animal.  Many reptiles must swallow their prey whole, which limits them to hunting smaller game.

photo of a chimpanzee showing mammalian heterodontism--the canine, incisor, molar, and premolar teeth are highlighted
Mammalian heterodontism

Like birds, mammals are endothermic click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, or warm blooded.  They are able to maintain a relatively constant body temperature regardless of external environmental conditions mainly by using internal physiological mechanisms.  In other words, they are homeothermic, or stable in core body temperature, as a result of endothermy.  All of the living species of insects, fish, reptiles, and amphibians are ectothermic click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, or cold blooded.  They keep their body temperature in a normal range mainly by avoiding exposure to environmental temperature extremes.  For instance, reptiles usually remain in shaded areas on hot days to prevent fatal overheating.  On cold nights, their lowered body temperature can cause them to become sluggish and inactive.  In contrast, endothermic animals are able to remain active at night and often in the winter when the air temperatures are especially cold.  They can also move about in the heat of very warm days.  This ability most likely provided an advantage for the early small mammals in surviving alongside dinosaurs and other large reptiles, which apparently were mostly ectothermic.  The downside of endothermy is the need to consume far more calories relative to body size in order to maintain a constant core body temperature.  Small mammals, such as moles with their rapid metabolism rates, must eat insects or other high calorie foods every half hour or so in order to stay alive.  By comparison, cold blooded rattlesnakes usually eat only once every 3-6 weeks and have been known to go without food for as long as two years.

Aiding in mammal body temperature control is their insulating hair and sweat glands.  Sweating helps to dissipate heat by evaporative cooling.  Compared to most other land mammals, humans are relatively hairless, but they have far more sweat glands.  Mammals have four chambered hearts (like birds), complex nervous systems, and large brains relative to the size of their bodies.  This broad range of useful features has made mammals highly adaptive and successful.  They first appeared about 200,000,000 years ago, early in the age of dinosaurs, and replaced reptiles as the dominant class of land animals after 65,000,000 years ago.  As the rapidly changing environment at that time led to the mass extinction of most large reptiles, it left vast evolutionary possibilities which mammals took advantage of by rapidly diversifying through adaptive radiation.  

Important to mammalian success is their reproductive system.  Their bodies took the amniote egg revolution of reptiles and birds one step further.  In effect, the uterus click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced functions as the protective eggshell.  Young mammals spend a long period of their early development within their mother's uterus.  After birth, they are provided with protein and fat rich milk to eat and are usually protected until maturity.  Pregnancy and milk production require mothers to significantly increase their own calorie consumption in order to provide nutrients for their infants.  A nursing human female normally uses about 30% of her body's energy just to produce milk.

photo of a woman carefully watching her baby
Mammalian mother and her baby

Despite their success, mammals still only make up about .4% of known animal species.  It is humbling to realize that all chordates together are only just over 3.7% of known animal species.  By comparison, well over 1/2 of all animal species are insects.


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Copyright 1998-2012 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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