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Temporal range: Ediacaran - Recent
Clockwise from top-left: Loligo vulgaris (a mollusk), Chrysaora quinquecirrha (a cnidarian), Aphthona flava (an arthropod), Eunereis longissima (an annelid), and Panthera tigris (a chordate).
Scientific classification
Domain: Eukaryota
(unranked): Opisthokonta
Kingdom: Animalia
Linnaeus, 1758
  • Subkingdom Parazoa
    • Porifera
  • Subkingdom Eumetazoa
    • Placozoa
    • Radiata (unranked)
      • Ctenophora
      • Cnidaria
    • Bilateria (unranked)
      • Orthonectida
      • Rhombozoa
      • Acoelomorpha
      • Chaetognatha
      • Superphylum Deuterostomia
        • Chordata
        • Hemichordata
        • Echinodermata
        • Xenoturbellida
        • Vetulicolia
      • Protostomia (unranked)
        • Superphylum Ecdysozoa
          • Kinorhyncha
          • Loricifera
          • Priapulida
          • Nematoda
          • Nematomorpha
          • Lobopodia
          • Tardigrada
          • Onychophora
          • Arthropoda
        • Superphylum Platyzoa
          • Platyhelminthes
          • Gastrotricha
          • Rotifera
          • Acanthocephala
          • Gnathostomulida
          • Micrognathozoa
          • Cycliophora
        • Superphylum Lophotrochozoa
          • Annelida
            • Echiura
            • Sipuncula
          • Nemertea
          • Phoronida
          • Brachiopoda
          • Mollusca
          • Bryozoa
          • Entoprocta
          • Hyolitha

Animals are a major group of multicellular, eukaryotic organisms of the kingdom Animalia or Metazoa. Their body plan becomes fixed as they develop, although some undergo a process of metamorphosis later on in their life. Most animals are motile - they can move spontaneously and independently. Animals are heterotrophs - they are dependent on other organisms (e.g. plants) for sustenance.

Most known animal phyla appeared in the fossil record as marine species during the Cambrian explosion, about 542 million years ago.


The word "animal" comes from the Latin word animale, neuter of animalis, and is derived from anima, meaning vital breath or soul. In everyday colloquial usage, the word usually refers to non-human animals. The biological definition of the word refers to all members of the Kingdom Animalia. Therefore, when the word "animal" is used in a biological context, humans are included.


Animals have several characteristics that set them apart from other living things. Animals are eukaryotic and usually multicellular (although see Myxozoa), which separates them from bacteria and most protists. They are heterotrophic, generally digesting food in an internal chamber, which separates them from plants and algae. They are also distinguished from plants, algae, and fungi by lacking cell walls. All animals are motile, if only at certain life stages. In most animals, embryos pass through a blastula stage, which is a characteristic exclusive to animals.


With a few exceptions, most notably the sponges (Phylum Porifera), animals have bodies differentiated into separate tissues. These include muscles, which are able to contract and control locomotion, and nerve tissue, which sends and processes signals. There is also typically an internal digestive chamber, with one or two openings. Animals with this sort of organization are called metazoans, or eumetazoans when the former is used for animals in general.

All animals have eukaryotic cells, surrounded by a characteristic extracellular matrix composed of collagen and elastic glycoproteins. This may be calcified to form structures like shells, bones, and spicules. During development it forms a relatively flexible framework upon which cells can move about and be reorganized, making complex structures possible. In contrast, other multicellular organisms like plants and fungi have cells held in place by cell walls, and so develop by progressive growth. Also, unique to animal cells are the following intercellular junctions: tight junctions, gap junctions, and desmosomes.

Reproduction and development

Nearly all animals undergo some form of sexual reproduction. Adults are diploid or polyploid. They have a few specialized reproductive cells, which undergo meiosis to produce smaller motile spermatozoa or larger non-motile ova. These fuse to form zygotes, which develop into new individuals.

A newt lung cell stained with fluorescent dyes undergoing mitosis, specifically early anaphase.

Many animals are also capable of asexual reproduction. This may take place through parthenogenesis, where fertile eggs are produced without mating, or in some cases through fragmentation.

A zygote initially develops into a hollow sphere, called a blastula, which undergoes rearrangement and differentiation. In sponges, blastula larvae swim to a new location and develop into a new sponge. In most other groups, the blastula undergoes more complicated rearrangement. It first invaginates to form a gastrula with a digestive chamber, and two separate germ layers - an external ectoderm and an internal endoderm. In most cases, a mesoderm also develops between them. These germ layers then differentiate to form tissues and organs.

Most animals grow by indirectly using the energy of sunlight. Plants use this energy to convert sunlight into simple sugars using a process known as photosynthesis. Starting with the molecules carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O), photosynthesis converts the energy of sunlight into chemical energy stored in the bonds of glucose (C6H12O6) and releases oxygen (O2). These sugars are then used as the building blocks which allow the plant to grow. When animals eat these plants (or eat other animals which have eaten plants), the sugars produced by the plant are used by the animal. They are either used directly to help the animal grow, or broken down, releasing stored solar energy, and giving the animal the energy required for motion. This process is known as glycolysis.

Animals who live close to hydrothermal vents and cold seeps on the ocean floor are not dependent on the energy of sunlight. Instead, chemosynthetic archaea and eubacteria form the base of the food chain.

Origin and fossil record

Animals are generally considered to have evolved from a flagellated eukaryote. Their closest known living relatives are the choanoflagellates, collared flagellates that have a morphology similar to the choanocytes of certain sponges. Molecular studies place animals in a supergroup called the opisthokonts, which also include the choanoflagellates, fungi and a few small parasitic protists. The name comes from the posterior location of the flagellum in motile cells, such as most animal spermatozoa, whereas other eukaryotes tend to have anterior flagella.

The first fossils that might represent animals appear towards the end of the Precambrian, around 610 million years ago, and are known as the Ediacaran or Vendian biota. These are difficult to relate to later fossils, however. Some may represent precursors of modern phyla, but they may be separate groups, and it is possible they are not really animals at all. Aside from them, most known animal phyla make a more or less simultaneous appearance during the Cambrian period, about 542 million years ago. It is still disputed whether this event, called the Cambrian explosion, represents a rapid divergence between different groups or a change in conditions that made fossilization possible. However some paleontologists and geologists would suggest that animals appeared much earlier than previously thought, possibly even as early as 1 billion years ago. Trace fossils such as tracks and burrows found in Tonian era strata in India indicate the presence of triploblastic worm like metazoans roughly as large (about 5mm wide) and complex as earthworms. In addition during the beginning of the Tonian period around 1 billion years ago (roughly the same time that the trace fossils previously discussed in this article date back to) there was a decrease in Stromatolite diversity which may indicate the appearance of grazing animals during this time as Stromatolites also increased in diversity shortly after the end-Ordovician and end-Permian rendered large amounts of grazing marine animals extinct and decreased shortly after their populations recovered. However some other scientists doubt that these fossils are authentic and have suggested these trace fossils are just the result of natural processes such as erosion.

Groups of animals

Orange elephant ear sponge, Agelas clathrodes, in foreground. Two corals in the background: a sea fan, Iciligorgia schrammi, and a sea rod, Plexaurella nutans.

The sponges ( Porifera) were long thought to have diverged from other animals early. As mentioned above, they lack the complex organization found in most other phyla. Their cells are differentiated, but in most cases not organized into distinct tissues. Sponges are sessile and typically feed by drawing in water through pores. Archaeocyatha, which have fused skeletons, may represent sponges or a separate phylum. However, a phylogenomic study in 2008 of 150 genes in 21 genera revealed that it is the Ctenophora or comb jellies which are the basal lineage of animals, at least among those 21 phyla. The authors speculate that sponges—or at least those lines of sponges they investigated—are not so primitive, but may instead be secondarily simplified.

Among the other phyla, the Ctenophora and the Cnidaria, which includes sea anemones, corals, and jellyfish, are radially symmetric and have digestive chambers with a single opening, which serves as both the mouth and the anus. Both have distinct tissues, but they are not organized into organs. There are only two main germ layers, the ectoderm and endoderm, with only scattered cells between them. As such, these animals are sometimes called diploblastic. The tiny Placozoans are similar, but they do not have a permanent digestive chamber.

The remaining animals form a monophyletic group called the Bilateria. For the most part, they are bilaterally symmetric, and often have a specialized head with feeding and sensory organs. The body is triploblastic, i.e. all three germ layers are well-developed, and tissues form distinct organs. The digestive chamber has two openings, a mouth and an anus, and there is also an internal body cavity called a coelom or pseudocoelom. There are exceptions to each of these characteristics, however - for instance adult echinoderms are radially symmetric, and certain parasitic worms have extremely simplified body structures.

Genetic studies have considerably changed our understanding of the relationships within the Bilateria. Most appear to belong to two major lineages: the Deuterostomes and Protostomes, which includes the Ecdysozoa, Platyzoa, and Lophotrochozoa. In addition, there are a few small groups of bilaterians with relatively similar structure that appear to have diverged before these major groups. These include the Acoelomorpha, Rhombozoa, and Orthonectida. The Myxozoa, single-celled parasites that were originally considered Protozoa, are now believed to have developed from the Bilateria as well.


Superb Fairy-wren, Malurus cyaneus

Deuterostomes differ from the other Bilateria, called protostomes, in several ways. In both cases there is a complete digestive tract. However, in protostomes the initial opening (the archenteron) develops into the mouth, and an anus forms separately. In deuterostomes this is reversed. In most protostomes, cells simply fill in the interior of the gastrula to form the mesoderm, called schizocoelous development, but in deuterostomes it forms through invagination of the endoderm, called enterocoelic pouching. Deuterostomes also have a dorsal, rather than a ventral, nerve chord and their embryos undergo different cleavage.

All this suggests the deuterostomes and protostomes are separate, monophyletic lineages. The main phyla of deuterostomes are the Echinodermata and Chordata. The former are radially symmetric and exclusively marine, such as starfish, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers. The latter are dominated by the vertebrates, animals with backbones. These include fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

In addition to these, the deuterostomes also include the Hemichordata or acorn worms. Although they are not especially prominent today, the important fossil graptolites may belong to this group.

The Chaetognatha or arrow worms may also be deuterostomes, but more recent studies suggest protostome affinities.


Yellow-winged Darter, Sympetrum flaveolum

The Ecdysozoa are protostomes, named after the common trait of growth by moulting or ecdysis. The largest animal phylum belongs here, the Arthropoda, including insects, spiders, crabs, and their kin. All these organisms have a body divided into repeating segments, typically with paired appendages. Two smaller phyla, the Onychophora and Tardigrada, are close relatives of the arthropods and share these traits.

The ecdysozoans also include the Nematoda or roundworms, the second largest animal phylum. Roundworms are typically microscopic, and occur in nearly every environment where there is water. A number are important parasites. Smaller phyla related to them are the Nematomorpha or horsehair worms, and the Kinorhyncha, Priapulida, and Loricifera. These groups have a reduced coelom, called a pseudocoelom.

The remaining two groups of protostomes are sometimes grouped together as the Spiralia, since in both embryos develop with spiral cleavage.


Bedford's flatworm, Pseudobiceros bedfordi

The Platyzoa include the phylum Platyhelminthes, the flatworms. These were originally considered some of the most primitive Bilateria, but it now appears they developed from more complex ancestors.

A number of parasites are included in this group, such as the flukes and tapeworms. Flatworms are acoelomates, lacking a body cavity, as are their closest relatives, the microscopic Gastrotricha.

The other platyzoan phyla are mostly microscopic and pseudocoelomate. The most prominent are the Rotifera or rotifers, which are common in aqueous environments. They also include the Acanthocephala or spiny-headed worms, the Gnathostomulida, Micrognathozoa, and possibly the Cycliophora. These groups share the presence of complex jaws, from which they are called the Gnathifera.


Roman snail, Helix pomatia

The Lophotrochozoa include two of the most successful animal phyla, the Mollusca and Annelida. The former includes animals such as snails, clams, and squids, and the latter comprises the segmented worms, such as earthworms and leeches. These two groups have long been considered close relatives because of the common presence of trochophore larvae, but the annelids were considered closer to the arthropods, because they are both segmented. Now this is generally considered convergent evolution, owing to many morphological and genetic differences between the two phyla.

The Lophotrochozoa also include the Nemertea or ribbon worms, the Sipuncula, and several phyla that have a fan of cilia around the mouth, called a lophophore. These were traditionally grouped together as the lophophorates. but it now appears they are paraphyletic, some closer to the Nemertea and some to the Mollusca and Annelida. They include the Brachiopoda or lamp shells, which are prominent in the fossil record, the Entoprocta, the Phoronida, and possibly the Bryozoa or moss animals.

Model organisms

Because of the great diversity found in animals, it is more economical for scientists to study a small number of chosen species so that connections can be drawn from their work and conclusions extrapolated about how animals function in general. Because they are easy to keep and breed, the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans have long been the most intensively studied metazoan model organisms, and were among the first lifeforms to be genetically sequenced. This was facilitated by the severely reduced state of their genomes, but the double-edged sword here is that with many genes, introns and linkages lost, these ecdysozoans can teach us little about the origins of animals in general. The extent of this type of evolution within the superphylum will be revealed by the crustacean, annelid, and molluscan genome projects currently in progress. Analysis of the starlet sea anemone genome has emphasised the importance of sponges, placozoans, and choanoflagellates, also being sequenced, in explaining the arrival of 1500 ancestral genes unique to the Eumetazoa.

An analysis of the homoscleromorph sponge Oscarella carmela also suggests that the last common ancestor of sponges and the eumetazoan animals was more complex than previously assumed.

Other model organisms belonging to the animal kingdom include the mouse ( Mus musculus) and zebrafish ( Danio rerio}.

History of classification

Carolus Linnaeus known as the father of modern taxonomy

Aristotle divided the living world between animals and plants, and this was followed by Carolus Linnaeus (Carl von Linné), in the first hierarchical classification. Since then biologists have begun emphasizing evolutionary relationships, and so these groups have been restricted somewhat. For instance, microscopic protozoa were originally considered animals because they move, but are now treated separately.

In Linnaeus's original scheme, the animals were one of three kingdoms, divided into the classes of Vermes, Insecta, Pisces, Amphibia, Aves, and Mammalia. Since then the last four have all been subsumed into a single phylum, the Chordata, whereas the various other forms have been separated out. The above lists represent our current understanding of the group, though there is some variation from source to source.

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