Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

27.1A: Characteristics of the Animal Kingdom

  • Page ID
    13689
  • The animal kingdom is very diverse, but animals share many common characteristics, such as methods of development and reproduction.

    Learning Objectives

    • Describe the methods used to classify animals

    Key Points

    • Animals vary in complexity and are classified based on anatomy, morphology, genetic makeup, and evolutionary history.
    • All animals are eukaryotic, multicellular organisms, and most animals have complex tissue structure with differentiated and specialized tissue.
    • Animals are heterotrophs; they must consume living or dead organisms since they cannot synthesize their own food and can be carnivores, herbivores, omnivores, or parasites.
    • Most animals are motile for at least some stages of their lives, and most animals reproduce sexually.

    Key Terms

    • body plan: an assemblage of morphological features shared among many members of a phylum-level group
    • heterotroph: an organism that requires an external supply of energy in the form of food, as it cannot synthesize its own
    • extant: still in existence; not extinct

    Introduction: Features of the Animal Kingdom

    Animal evolution began in the ocean over 600 million years ago with tiny creatures that probably do not resemble any living organism today. Since then, animals have evolved into a highly-diverse kingdom. Although over one million extant (currently living) species of animals have been identified, scientists are continually discovering more species as they explore ecosystems around the world. The number of extant species is estimated to be between 3 and 30 million.

    But what is an animal? While we can easily identify dogs, birds, fish, spiders, and worms as animals, other organisms, such as corals and sponges, are not as easy to classify. Animals vary in complexity, from sea sponges to crickets to chimpanzees, and scientists are faced with the difficult task of classifying them within a unified system. They must identify traits that are common to all animals as well as traits that can be used to distinguish among related groups of animals. The animal classification system characterizes animals based on their anatomy, morphology, evolutionary history, features of embryological development, and genetic makeup. This classification scheme is constantly developing as new information about species arises. Understanding and classifying the great variety of living species help us better understand how to conserve the diversity of life on earth.

    Even though members of the animal kingdom are incredibly diverse, most animals share certain features that distinguish them from organisms in other kingdoms. All animals are eukaryotic, multicellular organisms, and almost all animals have a complex tissue structure with differentiated and specialized tissues. Most animals are motile, at least during certain life stages. All animals require a source of food and are, therefore, heterotrophic: ingesting other living or dead organisms. This feature distinguishes them from autotrophic organisms, such as most plants, which synthesize their own nutrients through photosynthesis. As heterotrophs, animals may be carnivores, herbivores, omnivores, or parasites. Most animals reproduce sexually with the offspring passing through a series of developmental stages that establish a fixed body plan. The body plan refers to the morphology of an animal, determined by developmental cues.

    image

    Heterotrophs: All animals are heterotrophs that derive energy from food. The (a) black bear is an omnivore, eating both plants and animals. The (b) heartworm Dirofilaria immitis is a parasite that derives energy from its hosts. It spends its larval stage in mosquitoes and its adult stage infesting the heart of dogs and other mammals.