27.1 Features of the Animal Kingdom
Animals constitute an incredibly diverse kingdom of organisms. Although animals range in complexity from simple sea sponges to human beings, most members of the animal kingdom share certain features. Animals are eukaryotic, multicellular, heterotrophic organisms that ingest their food and usually develop into motile creatures with a fixed body plan. A major characteristic unique to the animal kingdom is the presence of differentiated tissues, such as nerve, muscle, and connective tissues, which are specialized to perform specific functions. Most animals undergo sexual reproduction, leading to a series of developmental embryonic stages that are relatively similar across the animal kingdom. A class of transcriptional control genes called Hox genes directs the organization of the major animal body plans, and these genes are strongly homologous across the animal kingdom.
27.2 Features Used to Classify Animals
Organisms in the animal kingdom are classified based on their body morphology, their developmental pathways, and their genetic affinities. The relationships between the Eumetazoa and more basal clades (Ctenophora, Porifera, and Placozoa) are still being debated. The Eumetazoa ("true animals") are divided into those with radial versus bilateral symmetry. Generally, the simpler and often nonmotile animals display radial symmetry, which allows them to explore their environment in all directions. Animals with radial symmetry are also generally characterized by the development of two embryological germ layers, the endoderm and ectoderm, whereas animals with bilateral symmetry are generally characterized by the development of a third embryologic germ layer, the mesoderm. Animals with three germ layers, called triploblasts, are further characterized by the presence or absence of an internal body cavity called a coelom. The presence of a coelom affords many advantages, and animals with a coelom may be termed true coelomates or pseudocoelomates, depending the extent to which mesoderm lines the body cavity. Coelomates are further divided into one of two groups called protostomes and deuterostomes, based on a number of developmental characteristics, including differences in zygote cleavage, the method of coelom formation, and the rigidity of the developmental fate of blastomeres.
27.3 Animal Phylogeny
Scientists are interested in the evolutionary history of animals and the evolutionary relationships among them. There are three main sources of data that scientists use to create phylogenetic evolutionary tree diagrams that illustrate such relationships: morphological information (which includes developmental morphologies), fossil record data, and, most recently, molecular data. The details of the modern phylogenetic tree change frequently as new data are gathered, and molecular data has recently contributed to many substantial modifications of the understanding of relationships between animal phyla.
27.4 The Evolutionary History of the Animal Kingdom
The most rapid documented diversification and evolution of animal species in all of history occurred during the Cambrian period of the Paleozoic Era, a phenomenon known as the Cambrian explosion. Until recently, scientists believed that there were only very few tiny and simplistic animal species in existence before this period. However, recent fossil discoveries have revealed that additional, larger, and more complex animals existed during the Ediacaran period, and even possibly earlier, during the Cryogenian period. Still, the Cambrian period undoubtedly witnessed the emergence of the majority of animal phyla that we know today, although many questions remain unresolved about this historical phenomenon.
The remainder of the Paleozoic Era is marked by the growing appearance of new classes, families, and species, and the early colonization of land by certain marine animals and semiaquatic arthropods, both freshwater and marine. The evolutionary history of animals is also marked by numerous major extinction events, each of which wiped out a majority of extant species. Some species of most animal phyla survived these extinctions, allowing the phyla to persist and continue to evolve into species that we see today.