Vertebrate Zoology

Course CodeBEN104
Fee CodeS3
Duration (approx)100 hours
QualificationStatement of Attainment



ACS Student Comments:
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.

"I feel I am getting a good basis to spring off from in the future." Vertebrate Zoology course, United Arab Emirates

Do you love animals and nature? Would you like to know more about them?


If you love animals and want to learn more about them, if you are involved in animal care and protection, animal management, wildlife management and care, veterinary, science teaching, or environmental management and protection, this course is a great option.

This in depth course will give you a thorough understanding of “higher” animals’ Zoology and Evolution, together with some principles on animal ecology and morphology.You will learn with the help of highly qualified and experienced tutors.

Lesson Structure

There are 10 lessons in this course:

  1. Vertebrate Taxonomy and Diversity Taxonomic classifications (Kingdom, Phylum, Division, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species).
    • Morphology and Evolution
    • Environmental and Genetic Influences
    • Speciation
    • Diversification
    • Convergence
    • Diet
    • Habits
    • Distribution
    • Terminology
  2. Fishes Fish Diversity (major groups):
    • Class Agnatha (jawless fishes)
    • Class Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fishes) and
    • Class Osteichthyes (bony fishes).
  3. Ectotherms - Amphibians and Reptiles:
    • Definitions, Endothermy, Ectothermic, Tetrapods
    • Class Amphibia
    • Order Anura (Salientia) Frogs and Toads, Salamanders and Newts
    • Order Apoda (Gymnophiona) Caecilians
    • Class Reptilia: Reptiles (turtles, lizards, snakes, crocodiles and the extinct Dinosauria)
    • Order Rhynchocephalia - Tuatara
    • Order Chelonia (Testudines) - Turtles, tortoises
    • Order Crocodilia - Crocodilians
    • Order Squamata - Lizards and Snakes
  4. Birds -Physiology (Structure) and Anatomy, Feathers, Colour, Legs, Skeletal structure, Muscles, Senses, Behaviour (Flight, Diving, etc), Egg formation, Hatching,
    • Bird Taxonomy –
    • Ratitae (flightless) birds
    • Carinatea (flying birds) Bird orders (eg. Grebes, divers, Ducks, geese and swans, Storks, flamingos and herons, Owls, Eagles, falcons and hawks, Pelicans, gannets and cormorants, Chickens, turkeys, game birds and mount birds, Rails, coots and cranes, Pigeons and sand grouse, Gulls, auks and plovers, Parrots, parakeets, Hummingbirds, swifts, Woodpeckers, toucans, Kingfishers, bee-eaters and hornbills, Trogonos, quetzals, plumed birds, Perching birds such as sparrows, starlings, swallows (Passeriformes),
    • Diving birds, loons, Cuckoos, coucals Nighthawks, whippoorwills, Mousebirds, etc.
  5. Mammals (Mammalia)
    • Overview - Taxonomy
    • Sub class Prototheria (egg laying animals) - echidna and platypus
    • Sub class Metatheria (Marsupials) eg. koala, kangaroo and opossum
    • Sub class Eutheria (Placental mammals -these include such diverse forms as whales, elephants, shrews, and armadillos, dogs, cats, sheep, cattle and horses. Humans, of course, are also placental mammals).
  6. Marsupials -Subclass Theria
    • (eg. kangaroos, koalas, wombats, bandicoots, opossums, phalangers, etc);
    • Marsupials Physiology and locomotion,
    • Reproduction
  7. Grandorders Glires and Insectivora
    • including Rodents, Rabbits, Pikas, Hedgehogs, Moles, Shrews and Tenrecs. Taxonomy, structure, Adaptations.
  8. Carnivores
    • includes dogs, wolves, bears, racoons, cats, weasels, hyenas, seals, sea lions and walruses.
    • Taxonomy, Physiology, Adaptations,
  9. Hoofed Mammals (Ungulata: Includes seven orders)
    • Order Artiodactyla. This includes: Hippopotami, Deer, Giraffe, Sheep, Cattle, Antelope, Camelids
    • Order Cetacea. This includes: Dolphins, Porpoises, Whales
    • Order Perissodactyla. This includes: Horses, Rhinoceroses, Tapirs
    • Order Tubulidentata. This includes: Aardvarks
    • Order Hyracoidea. This includes: Hyraxes (or Conies)
    • Order Proboscidea. This includes: Elephants
    • Order Sirenia. This includes: Manatees and Dugongs
  10. Primates and other Archonta.
    • This grand order is sub divided into four sub orders:
    • Scandentia e.g. Tree Shrews
    • Dermoptera e.g. Flying Lemurs, Colugos
    • Chiroptera. This order comprises the bats.
    • Primates (Or Order Primates and sub order Strepsirhini) e.g. humans, monkeys, apes and lemurs


  • 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.
  • 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.

What You Will Do

  • 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 grand order 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. 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


Mammals are a class of animals that is often considered to be the highest class of all animals. From a zoological point of view, humans belong to this class. Mammals are four-limbed, warm-blooded, air-breathing animals. Mammals originated as terrestrial animals, and is the only class of animals that embraces all the environments available on Earth – terrestrial (carnivores, hoofed, elephants etc), underground (moles, gofers, marmots etc), air (bats), fresh water ecosystems (beavers, platypus, water rats), oceans (whales and dolphins, seals, dugongs and manatees) and polar ice caps (seals, walruses, polar fox, polar bear).

Mammals originated from reptilian ancestors, and the transition is so well documented that the limit between the two groups of animals is somewhat blurred. One of the reasons for that is because their bones are well mineralised, thus are better preserved in sediments across geological ages.

Mammals have hair-covered skin (secondary naked in some) with external glands. One type of glands, milk glands, is another distinctive feature of mammals found in no other group of animals, except for some fishes from Cichlidae family whose fry feed on mucous secretions from parents’ skin. The mammary glands give name to the class as they are the differentiating characteristic of the mammals from the other Tetrapods.

Unlike other vertebrates, mammals have a single bone in lower jaw and three inner ear bones. They have a distinctive cranium (head skeleton), jaw, teeth, pectoral girdle, muscles, brain and other structures. Fertilisation is always internal. All mammals are viviparous with the exception of Monotremes. Forelimbs can be transformed into wings,(bats), or flippers, (dolphins, whales, dugongs, seals). Hind limbs can be absent in Ocean mammals (whales, dugongs).

In spite of common major anatomical and physiological features, mammals achieved the greatest diversity of shapes and sizes. The largest animal which has ever lived on Earth is contemporary Blue Whale ( Balaenoptera musculus ). It can weight more than 150 tonnes, while the smallest known mammal, the shrew, merely reaches 2.5 grams. This is a 60,000,000 times difference! The difference in weight between the largest and the smallest contemporary birds is just about 57,000 times.


The three subclasses of mammals are:

1. Prototheria – egg laying animals, several species found only in Australia,

2. Metatheria – marsupial animals found in Australia and South America, and

3. Eutheria that includes majority of contemporary species and is distributed in all continents of our planet.

Mammals comprise 3000 genera, of which 1000 are alive today.

It was previously thought that contemporary mammals evolved from egg laying mammals similar to the contemporary platypus and echidna, through marsupials to higher mammals. There is now evidence that these three groups of mammals originated and evolved separately on different continents – egg laying mammals in Australia, marsupials in South America, higher mammals in Eurasia and North America. Due to the continents’ movement - fusion and separation over millions of years - different groups of mammals penetrated other continents and competed with each other. Marsupials entered Australia through Antarctica. Being stronger competitors than the egg laying mammals, marsupials pushed egg laying mammals to the brink of extinction.

Egg laying mammals have survived due to their remote geographical distribution. Higher mammals entered South America through North America and suppressed marsupials. When the continents fused there was movement of species in both directions.

Marsupials penetrated North America and Eurasia, but they died out on these continents (except one species, the North American Opossum) because they were unable to compete with the higher mammals.

One relatively recent example of this kind of competition is Dingo dog that was introduced to Australia about 30 thousand years ago. This dog belongs to higher mammals. Being a more successful carnivore than its local competitors, it completely replaced two largest carnivorous marsupials of the time, the Tasmanian tiger and the Tasmanian devil, on the Australian continent.

Subclass prototheria

Order Monotremata – Monotremes, Egg laying mammals

These are believed to be most primitive mammals with some reptilian features. Their name, Monotremata, meaning “one opening” refers to their cloaca, a common opening where faecal, urinary ducts and the reproductive system end. Besides, retaining a feature from their reptilian ancestors, they are oviparous, producing eggs that are permeable to nutrients incoming from mother to offspring. The egg uterine development is similar to birds and reptiles.

Their reproductive system differs from all other mammals in that they have two uteri that end in a common vagina. Eggs are incubated internally for 10 to 11 days, after which the young is nursed. Milk is produced by teatless mammary glands similar to the sweat glands of other mammals. Some of their genetic material is organized like in the reptiles, in microchromosomes, and some as macrochromosomes as in the mammals. Sperm and the anatomy of testes show also reptilian feature.

Monotremata posses a beak that is toothless in adults (edentate). It can be pointed, as in the Echidnas (Tachyglossidae) or flat duck-like as in the Platypus (Ornithorhynchidae). Their skulls appear bird like, and their body skeleton features resemble some extinct reptiles. They have rudimentary pouch bones similar to those of marsupials, but they don’t have a permanent pouch. They are endothermic, but they maintain lower body temperatures, around 32°C, than metatheria and eutheria. Males have venomous, horny spores on hind limbs which serve no apparent reason. Monotremes are found only in Australia including Tasmania and New Guinea.

Three contemporary species are known:

  • Duckbilled Platypus ( Ornithorhynchus anatinus ) also called Water Mole and Duckmole. It is an aquatic animal native to Tasmanian and South Australian rivers. Lacking external ears, fur is short, colour is reddish-brown. Flattened bill is covered with very sensitive skin: it is used to search for food – crayfish, worms and other small bottom animals -under water. Small eyes are closed when the animal dives and are not used for orientation under water. Five-digit paws are webbed; the tail is horizontally flattened like in beavers. Females dig large burrows in the river bank consisting of a gallery and nest chamber. A Female lays and nurtures two leathery shelled eggs in the chamber. Hatched young have milk teeth that are not replaced by permanent ones.
  • Short-beaked Echidna ( Tachyglossus aculeatus ) is also called Spiny Anteater. Distributed in Tasmania, New Guinea and continental Australia. Females lay one, rarely two eggs, placed in a pouch which develops only for the period it is needed. Eats ants, termites, worms and other small terrestrial and soil invertebrates. Back is covered with large and strong horny spikes – modified hair. In danger, it burrows itself into the ground leaving only its spiny back outside. Active by day or night depending on the weather.
    • Long-beaked Echidna ( Zaglossus bruijny ) is also called Carved-beaked Echidna and Proechidna. Similar to the previous species. Widespread in New Guinea. Weight between 6 and 16 kg, usually averaging 7.5 and 10kg. Nocturnal. Female usually lays one egg. Lifespan is at least 30 years.

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