2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General Biology

Fossil range: mid Early Cambrian to Recent
Northern bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus
Northern bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
(unranked) Craniata
Subphylum: Vertebrata

Cuvier, 1812

Classes and Clades

See below

Vertebrates are members of the subphylum Vertebrata (within the phylum Chordata), specifically, those chordates with backbones or spinal columns. About 57,739 species of vertebrates have been described. Vertebrates started to evolve about 530 million years ago during the Cambrian explosion, which is part of the Cambrian period (first known vertebrate is Myllokunmingia). Their name derives from the bones of the spinal column (or vertebral column), the vertebrae. Vertebrata is the largest subphylum of chordates, and contains many familiar groups of large land animals. Fish (including lampreys, but traditionally not hagfish, though this is now disputed), amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals (including humans) are vertebrates. Characteristics of the subphylum are a muscular system that mostly consists of paired masses, as well as a central nervous system which is partly located inside the backbone (if one is present). Usually, the defining characteristic of a vertebrate is considered the backbone or spinal cord, a brain case, and an internal skeleton, but the former do not hold true for lampreys, and the latter is arguably present in some other chordates. Rather, all vertebrates are most easily distinguished from all other chordates by having an unequivocal head, that is, sensory organs - especially eyes are concentrated at the fore end of the body and there is pronounced cephalization. Compare the lancelets which have a mouth but no true head, and "see" with their entire back.


The internal skeleton which defines vertebrates consists of cartilage or bone, or in some cases both. An outer skeleton in form of a bony armour was the first bony substance the vertebrates evolved. It is possible its primary function was as a phosphate reservoir, excreted as calcium phosphate and stored around the body, offering protection at the same time. The skeleton provides support to the organism during the period of growth. For this reason vertebrates can achieve larger sizes than invertebrates, and on average vertebrates are in fact larger. The skeleton of most vertebrates, that is excluding the most primitive ones, consists of a skull, the vertebral column and two pairs of limbs. In some forms of vertebrates, one or both of these pairs of limbs may be absent, such as in snakes or whales. These limbs have been lost in the course of evolution.

The skull is thought to have facilitated the development of intelligence as it protects vital organs such as the brain, the eyes and the ears. The protection of these organs is also thought to have positively influenced the development of high responsiveness to the environment often found in vertebrates.

Both the vertebral column and the limbs support the body of the vertebrate overall. This support facilitates movement. Movement is normally achieved with muscles that are attached directly to the bones or cartilages. The contour of the body of a vertebrate is formed by the muscles. A skin covers the inner parts of a vertebrate's body. The skin sometimes acts as a structure for protective features, such as horny scales or fur. Feathers may also be attached to the skin.

The trunk of a vertebrate is hollow and houses the internal organs. The heart and the respiratory organs are protected in the trunk. The heart is located behind the gills, or where there are lungs, in between the lungs.

The central nervous system of a vertebrate consists of the brain and the spinal cord. Both of these are characterized by being hollow. In lower vertebrates the brain mostly controls the functioning of the sense organs. In higher vertebrates the size of the brain relative to the size of the body is greater. This larger brain enables more intensive exchange of information between the different parts of the brain. The nerves from the spinal cord, which lies behind the brain, extend to the skin, the inner organs and the muscles. Some nerves are directly connected to the brain, linking the brain with the ears and lungs.


Vertebrates have been traced back to Myllokunmingia during the Cambrian explosion (530 million years ago), the ostracoderms of the Silurian Period (444 million to 409 million years ago), and the conodonts, a group of eel-like vertebrates characterized by multiple pairs of bony toothplates.


Classification after Janvier (1981, 1997), Shu et al. (2003), and Benton (2004) .

  • Subphylum Vertebrata
    • (Unranked group) Hyperoartia ( lampreys)
    • Class † Conodonta
    • Class † Pteraspidomorphi
    • Order † Thelodonti
    • Order † Anaspida
    • Order † Galeaspida
    • Order † Pituriaspida
    • Order † Osteostraci
    • Infraphylum Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates)
  • Class † Placodermi (Paleozoic armoured forms)
  • Class Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fish)
  • Class † Acanthodii (Paleozoic "spiny sharks")
  • Superclass Osteichthyes (bony fish)
  • Class Actinopterygii (ray-finned fish)
  • Class Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish)
  • Subclass Coelacanthimorpha ( coelacanths)
  • Subclass Dipnoi (lungfish)
  • Subclass Tetrapodomorpha (ancestral to tetrapods)
  • Superclass Tetrapoda (four-limbed vertebrates)
  • Class Amphibia (amphibians)
  • Series Amniota (amniotic embryo)
  • Class Sauropsida (reptiles and birds)
  • Class Aves (birds)
  • Class Synapsida (mammal-like reptiles)
  • Class Mammalia (mammals)

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