Vertebrate Zoology BEN104

Study Vertebrate Zoology

  • A foundation for further studies or work with animals
  • A courses for aspiring biologists, or anyone with a passion for animals -pets, wildlife or farm animals.
  • Commence study any time and study at your own pace

This is a terrific course for people who want to learn more about animals or are currently working in animal care, protection, management or veterinary science. The course covers all of the vertebrate classes in detail and will help you to differentiate between them. 

ACS Student Comment: I am thoroughly enjoying the Vertebrate Zoology course with ACS. Dr. Browne has been a wonderful tutor and has given clear, concise and constructive feedback on each of the assignments I have submitted. The structure of the course allows you to independently research topics guided by module notes, set tasks and assignment questions. The more you put into this course the more you take away. I love the suggestions of where and how to do the set tasks. Dissecting a grey mullet for Assignment 2 was thus far the best part of the course – while it is only suggested to approach in this manner you should consider making it a requirement of the module. I was able to coordinate with a local fisherman in association with a fish monger - they happily caught and presented me with a beautiful specimen. After dissection it made a great meal for my four legged friends (Nothing wasted and absolutely ethical! :). The hands-on approach enabled me to get a very comprehensive understanding of the anatomy of a fish. The gizzard of the grey mullet was a bonus and had I not dissected - I would not have been able to fully appreciate the complex digestive system of this omnivorous fish. Today I’m off to the Eagles Flying raptor research center to meet with the biologist who runs the center – he’s allowing me to spend the day observing barn owls for my current module. Yet, another brilliant experience thanks to my enrolment at ACS. Jessica, Vertebrate Zoology course.


The course is divided into ten lessons as follows:

1.  Vertebrate Taxonomy and Diversity

2.  Fishes

3.  Ectotherms: Amphibians and Reptiles

4.  Birds

5.  Overview of Mammals

6. Marsupials

7. Mammalian Glires and Insectivora

8.  Carnivores

9.  Hooved Mammals: Ungulata

10. Primates and other Archonta


Upon completion of this course, the student will be able to:

  • Distinguish between major groups of vertebrates through a demonstrated understanding of their taxonomic classification and diversity.
  • Describe the distinguishing characteristics of all major groups of fishes. 
  • To describe the distinguishing characteristics of all major groups of Ectotherms, Amphibians and Reptiles.
  • Describe the distinguishing characteristics of major groups of birds
  • Describe the distinguishing characteristics of all major groups of Mammals.
  • Describe the distinguishing characteristics of animals in the order Marsupialia and compare mammalian specialisations with those of other vertebrates.
  • Describe the distinguishing characteristics of animals within the grandorders Glires and Insectivora.  Explain Ectothermy in a variety of different animals.
  • Describe the distinguishing characteristics of animals within the order Carnivora.
  • Describe the distinguishing characteristics of animals within the grand order Ungulata.
  • Describe the distinguishing characteristics of animals within the grandorder Archonta.


During this course, the student will carry out the following activities.  Where a student’s mobility is limited or there is a lack of facilities in the student’s home locality, an equivalent activity can be offered:

  • Visit a Zoo, Wildlife Park or even a Pet Shop.  Observe the range of animals present and report on them.
  • Visit an aquarium supply shop, marine park, fish retailer, or other facility where you can observe fish.  If your mobility is restricted or you are unable to locate such a facility, look at the web site of an aquarium, and see what diversity of animals is to be seen on that web site.  Identify animals from different orders and report on them.
  • Research the anatomical characteristics of one species of fish
  • Investigate the biological characteristics of one species of amphibian
  • Investigate the biological characteristics of one species of reptile
  • Research the biological characteristics of one species of bird
  • Observe the behaviour of a bird or birds for 1 hour (in the wild, or captivity).  Take notes
  • Investigate the biological characteristics of one species of mammal.
  • Research a particular family or genus of marsupial.
  • Visit either a pet shop or zoo and observe any animals from the Glires or Insectivora that you find there.
  • Observe a dog closely.  Take note of its external features in the light of the things you have learned in this lesson. Notice the shape of the head, body and legs, the characteristics of the feet, etc.  Make notes on your observations.  Compile a scientific description of the anatomy of the dog you observed.  Where possible, use technical terminology that you have learned during your course.
  • Visit a farm, pet shop or zoo and observe any animals belonging to the grandorder Ungulata that you find there.  Make a list of these animals.
  • Research an order, family, genus or species of hooved Mammal (Ungulata).
  • Try to find out about the characteristics of your chosen group
  • Try to observe some monkeys and/or apes (on video, but preferably in real life).  You might do this by visiting a zoo, watching a video or looking on the Internet.  Make notes of any similarities and dissimilarities you observe between these animals and humans.  Research their physical and behavioural characteristics with a view to comparing these with human characteristics
  • SPECIAL RESEARCH PROJECT: Prepare a report on the relationship between mammalian evolution and environmental conditions.


Duration:   100 hours


This course may help with a wide range of career or employment prospects:

  • Animal rescue
  • Animal technicians and researchers
  • Veterinary assistants, nurses and professionals
  • Animal centres, Ppet shops, farms, and companies that supply equipment and supplies to the animal industries.
  • Wildlife or conservation officers
  • Zoo and wildlife park staff
  • Animal Breeders

If you want to spend the greater proportion of your working life actually with vertebrates, then one of the animal caring professions is for you. This may include such jobs as zoo keepers, aquaria keepers, aviaries, aviculture and fish culture centres and companies, nature park carers, animal technicians and animal researchers based at commercial research laboratories or universities, and veterinary staff.

Most of these jobs require minimal qualifications, although a degree or diploma in biological science will almost certainly be helpful, if not a masters degree in something appropriate. Some vertebrates are "flagship species" for conservation projects (primates, aquatic mammals, African ungulates and carnivores, bears). So, any conservation/environment job is likely to have a vertebrate related component.

Media Jobs

There is considerable media interest in primates: television documentaries; scientific and popular journalism; photography. There are a number of courses in film-making, media studies, journalism and photography that your careers service can tell you about.

Tourism Jobs

There are a growing number of travel companies that offer guided nature tours and safaris. They require specialist guides with excellent plant and animal knowledge.

Career Tips:

  • ensure your skills are up to date, by pursuing further studies or attending professional development activities.
  • Keep up to date with what's happening in the field of Wildlife Management. What are the most pressing issues and where is there likely to be more work?
  • Join a networking group to meet people who are working in the field of Wildlife Management.
  • Get some experience. Whether paid or unpaid, experience will always make your CV look more impressive and give you some practical knowledge to apply in your interview.



Although the term “Higher Animals” is well established in both common and scientific language as a synonym for vertebrates, we should bear in mind that there are other groups of animals that are highly developed, namely insects and cephalopods.


Phylum Chordata

The subphylum Vertebrata is placed within the phylum Chordata. Most chordates are bilaterally symmetrical animals with differentiation into head, trunk, and tail.

As a rule, chordates are active animals. The most distinctive anatomical features of chordates are a notochord and nerve cord. The notochord is an exceptionally important characteristic of chordates. It is like a stiffened rod that does not compress. This allows the body muscles to act against the notochord and thus allows the animal to move.

The phylum Chordata includes three subphyla:

1. Subphylum Acrania includes about 30-35 contemporary species placed in one class and three families. All are marine animals. Look like small (~10 cm or smaller) semi-transparent fish.

2. Subphylum Urochordata (Tunicata) consists of three classes of exclusively marine animals.

2.1 Class Ascidia includes about 1,000 contemporary sessile filter-feeding animals also called Sea Squirts. Order Synacidiae includes species living in colonies, while order Monoscidiae includes solitary animals.

2.2 Class Thaliacea (Salpae) includes about 70 contemporary pelagic filter-feeder species shaped like a barrel, and is divided into three orders. Order Pyrosomidae consists of species living in colonies: orders Salpidae and Doliolidae consist of solitary species.

2.3 Class Appendiculariae includes about 60 small (several millimeters) pelagic species.

3. Subphylum Vertebrata includes animals with a distinct internal skeleton. They are multicellular animals derived from embryos that have three cellular layers: endoderm (endo- internal), mesoderm (meso- medium) and ectoderm (ecto- external). They have bilateral symmetric bodies, and internal gut with two openings, mouth and anus. Only Vertebrates have a true brain with several different areas and a skeletal structure that protects the brain, the cranium. They have developed sensory organs (eyes, ears, olfactory organs). They posses a more complex digestive system, with several accessory digestive glands. The heart is chambered. They have developed more complex respiratory and muscular systems as well.

Classes within Vertebrata include:

  • Cyclostomata (Lampreys and Hagfish)
  • Chondrichthyes (Sharks, Skates and Rays, Elephant Fishes)
  • Osteichthyes (Bony Fishes) (Choanichthyes (Lungfish) separated from this class by some researchers)
  • Amphibia (Amphibians – Frogs and Toads, Newts and Salamanders, Caecilians)
  • Reptilia (Crocodiles, Lizards and Snakes, Turtles and Tortoises, Marine Iguanas)
  • Aves (Birds)
  • Mammalia (Mammals)




Morphology is the study (-logy) of forms (morpho-). Animal morphology studies not only animal form, but also why animals develop in a certain way.

To understand why an animal part or structure is as we know them today, we have to study what pushes evolution in a certain path and not in another direction.

There are two major factors that determine evolution:

  • Environment
  • Genetics

Environment determines animal form by providing opportunities for better survival and reproduction. Environment provides for unoccupied habitats or ecological spaces (niches) where it is advantageous to develop structures or to use existing ones differently, to make the animal better suited to their environment, that is, to survive better as an individual or as a species. Thus environment puts limitations to animal evolution, and encourages certain evolutionary paths.

Morphological changes are also determined by genetics. A certain structure may change in a certain way, because there is a genetic possibility that allows for that change. But an animal cannot develop a structure when there are no genes that could be modified to develop the new structure. There must be a genetic predisposition. A primate cannot develop feathered wings because the feathered wing genes were not in primitive mammals’ evolution.

Genes are changing constantly, although the rate of change may be very slow. Genetic change is accelerated though when environmental changes are quicker. Evolution has been faster in geological times where environmental instability has been the highest.

Environment determines animal behaviour, and behaviour determines evolution as well. Animal behaviour is determined by basic survival needs:

  • Feeding
  • Reproducing
  • Surviving predation

Any structural change that reinforces or facilitates the three functions above will be promoted if there is genetic resources for it.

The effects of evolution in animal morphology can be classified in two main types:

  • Speciation
  • Diversification

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