Vertebrate Chordates  
Animals with a Backbone

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The vertebrates comprise a large group of chordates, and are subdivided into seven classes (3 classes of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals). Vertebrates have an internal skeleton of cartilage or bone, with vertebrae surrounding the dorsal nerve cord.

Subphylum Vertebrata

The subphylum Vertebrata consists of about 43,700 species of animals with backbones. Vertebrates exhibit all three of the chordate characteristics at some point during their lives. The embryonic notochord is replaced by a vertebral column in the adult. The vertebral column is made of individual hard segments (vertebrae) surrounding the dorsal hollow nerve cord. The nerve cord is the one chordate feature present in the adult phase of all vertebrates. The vertebral column, part of a flexible but strong endoskeleton, is evidence that vertebrates are segmented. The vertebrate skeleton is living tissue (either cartilage or bone) that grows as the animal grows.

The endoskeleton and muscles form an organ system  that permits rapid and efficient movement. The pectoral and pelvic fins of fishes evolved into jointed appendages that allowed vertebrates to move onto land. The skull, the most anterior component of the main axis of the vertebrate endoskeleton, encases the brain. The high degree of cephalization in vertebrates is accompanied by complex sense organs concentrated in the head region. Eyes developed as outgrowths of the brain. Ears were equilibrium devices in aquatic vertebrates that function as sound-wave receivers in land vertebrates. Vertebrates have a complete digestive system and a large coelom. Their circulatory system is closed, with respiratory pigments contained within blood vessels. Gas exchange is efficiently accomplished by gills, lungs, and in a few cases, moist skin. Kidneys are efficient in excretion of nitrogenous waste and regulation of water. Reproduction is usually sexual with separate sexes.

Classification of the Vertebrata

The first vertebrates were fishlike. Fishes are aquatic, gill-breathing vertebrates that usually have fins and skin covered with scales. The larval form of a modern-day lamprey, which looks like a lancelet, may resemble the first vertebrates: it has the three chordate characteristics (like the tunicate larva), as well as a two-chambered heart, a three-part brain, and other internal organs that are like those of vertebrates.

Small, jawless, and finless ostracoderms were the earliest vertebrates. They were filter feeders, but probably were also able to move water through their gills by muscular action. Ostracoderms have been found as fossils from the Cambrian through Devonian periods, when the group finally went extinct. Although extant jawless fishes lack protection, many early jawless fishes had large defensive head shields.

Class Lampreys

These long, eel-like, jawless fish are free-swimming predators on other fish. Lampreys hatch in freshwater and many live their lives entirely in freshwater. Some lampreys migrate to the sea, but must return to freshwater to reproduce. Lampreys have a sucker-like mouth that lacks a jaw.


Sea lamprey on lake trout



Sea lamprey mouth

Class Myrini, Hagfish

Members of the class Myxini have a partial cranium (skull), but no vertebrae. Their skeleton is made of of cartilage, as is that of sharks. Hagfish lack jaws, and for this reason used to be classified with the lampreys in a group called the Agnatha ("no jaws") or the Cyclostomata ("round mouth").


Fish: Vertebrates With Jaws

The fish first appeared during the Cambrian Period. Whether fish first evolved in fresh or salt water is unclear from the fossil record. The jawless fish are the most primitive group, although they were a very important group during the Silurian and Devonian periods. Hagfish and lampreys are the only living members of this class today. They have long, cylindrical bodies with cartilage skeletons and no paired fins.

The first jawed fish were the Placoderms, an extinct group of Devonian-aged jawed fishes. Placoderms were armored with heavy plates and had strong jaws and paired pectoral and pelvic fins. Paired fins allow fish to balance and to maneuver well in water, which facilitate both predation and escape.


The fossil is a cast of the placoderm, Bothriolepis


The evolution of jaws is an example of evolutionary modification of existing structures to perform new functions. Jaws are modified gill arches, and allowed the exploitation of new roles in the habitats: predators with powerful jaws. There are two classes of jawed fish: the cartilaginous fish and the bony fish.


Steps in the evolution of jaws by modification of gill arches.

Class Chondrichthyes: Cartilaginous Fish