Vertebrate Zoology

Learn about animals with backbones - how they are classified, and the characteristics of the various groups from fishes and reptiles to birds and mammals.

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

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The world is in need of zoologists, animal researchers, carers, and more. 

Revised and Updated!

 Environmental and anthropogenic (human-caused) forces affect our wildlife, now more than ever. As species fall into vulnerable and nearing-extinction categories, public interest in preserving habitats and animals is increasing. As a result, a greater amount of government spending is now being put into zoological research.

There will be increased demand for zoologists and wildlife biologists in the future with the need to study the effects of human growth and development on wildlife and their natural environment.

Our zoology course is unique in that it is an "experiential-based" course designed to provide you with practical components. As you work through the course, you'll be working with industry professionals, while exploring the fundamental principles of vertebrate zoology.

Excellent for those working with animals or as a sound foundation for further studies in farming, wildlife, veterinary or pet care industries.

ACS Student Comment:

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.

Lesson Structure

There are 11 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, Ectotermic, 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)
    • Water Birds (eg. Grebes, divers, Ducks, geese and swans, Storks, flamingoes and herons, pelicans, gannets and cormorants,)
    • Owls, Eagles, falcons and hawks
    • 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 masmmals -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
    • kangaroos
    • koalas
    • wombats
    • bandicoots
    • opossums
    • phalangers, etc
    • Marsupials Physiology and locomotion, Reproduction
  7. Grandorders Glires and Insectivora
    • Rodents
    • Rabbits
    • Pikas
    • Hedgehogs
    • Moles
    • Shrews and Tenrecs
    • Taxonomy, structure, Adaptations.
  8. Carnivores
    • 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: Ardvarks
    • 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 grandorder 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
  11. Problem-Based Learning Project

Each lesson culminates in an assignment which is submitted to the school, marked by the school's tutors and returned to you with any relevant suggestions, comments, and if necessary, extra reading.


  • 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.
  • To 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

  • During this course, the student will carry out the following activities. Where a student’s mobility is limited or there is a lack of facilities in the student’s home locality, an equivalent activity can be offered
  • 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 Grandorder 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.
  • SPECIAL PROJECT: Prepare a report on the relationship between environmental change and mammalian evolution.


It Doesn't need to be so Difficult


Although the term “Higher Animals” is well established in both common and scientific language as a synonym for vertebrates, we should bear in mind that there are other groups of animals that are highly developed, namely insects and cephalopods. 

Phylum Chordata

The subphylum Vertebrata is placed within the phylum Chordata. Most chordates are bilaterally symmetrical animals with differentiation into head, trunk, and tail. 
As a rule, chordates are active animals. The most distinctive anatomical features of chordates are a notochord and nerve cord. The notochord is an exceptionally important characteristic of chordates.  It is like a stiffened rod that does not compress. This allows the body muscles to act against the notochord and thus allows the animal to move.

The phylum Chordata includes three subphyla:

1. Subphylum Acrania includes about 30-35 contemporary species placed in one class and three families. All are marine animals. Look like small (~10 cm or smaller) semi-transparent fish.

2. Subphylum Urochordata (Tunicata) consists of three classes of exclusively marine animals. 

3.  Subphylum Vertebrata includes animals with a distinct internal skeleton.
They are multicellular animals derived from embryos that have three cellular layers: endoderm (endo- internal), mesoderm (meso- medium) and ectoderm (ecto- external).
They have bilateral symmetric bodies, and internal gut with two openings, mouth and anus. Only Vertebrates have a true brain with several different areas and a skeletal structure that protects the brain, the cranium. They have developed sensory organs (eyes, ears, olfactory organs). They posses a more complex digestive system, with several accessory digestive glands. The heart is chambered. They have developed more complex respiratory and muscular systems as well.

Classes within Vertebrata include:

  • Cyclostomata (Lampreys and Hagfish)

  • Chondrichthyes (Sharks, Skates and Rays, Elephant Fishes)

  • Osteichthyes (Bony Fishes) (Choanichthyes (Lungfish) separated from this class by some researchers)

  • Amphibia (Amphibians – Frogs and Toads, Newts and Salamanders, Caecilians)

  • Reptilia (Crocodiles, Lizards and Snakes, Turtles and Tortoises, Marine Iguanas)

  • Aves (Birds)

  • Mammalia (Mammals)

Morphology and Evolution
Morphology is the study (-logy) of forms (morpho-). Animal morphology studies not only animal form, but also why animals develop in a certain way.

To understand why an animal part or structure is as we know them today, we have to study what pushes evolution in a certain path and not in another direction.

There are two major factors that determine evolution:

  • Environment

  • Genetics

Environment determines animal form by providing opportunities for better survival and reproduction. Environment provides for unoccupied habitats or ecological spaces (niches) where it is advantageous to develop structures or to use existing ones differently, to make the animal better suited to their environment, that is, to survive better as an individual or as a species. Thus environment puts limitations to animal evolution, and encourages certain evolutionary paths.

Morphological changes are also determined by genetics. A certain structure may change in a certain way, because there is a genetic possibility that allows for that change. But an animal cannot develop a structure when there are no genes that could be modified to develop the new structure. There must be a genetic predisposition. A primate cannot develop feathered wings because the feathered wing genes were not in primitive mammals’ evolution.
Genes are changing constantly, although the rate of change may be very slow. Genetic change is accelerated though when environmental changes are quicker. Evolution has been faster in geological times where environmental instability has been the highest.

Environment determines animal behaviour, and behaviour determines evolution as well. Animal behaviour is determined by basic survival needs:

  • Feeding

  • Reproducing

  • Surviving predation

Any structural change that reinforces or facilitates the three functions above will be promoted if there is genetic seed for it.

The effects of evolution in animal morphology can be classified in two main types:

  • Speciation

  • Diversification

Speciation happens when an animal population expands geographically. In every location, the population will encounter different environments, even if differences are slight. A one degree average annual temperature variation may be a significant difference for some species.

With time, there will be genetic variation in the population due to adaptations to the different environmental factors encountered across the population living grounds. Individuals may be able to breed with other individuals living nearby. But if genetic changes become too big, for instances in populations that were separated geographically long time ago, interbreeding cannot occur, and species become more and more distinct. Eventually they will develop as separate species.

There are several diversification processes by which evolution proceeds.

  • Successive adaptive radiation is the process by which a common ancestor gives rise to several different phyla, classes or families.

  • Convergence is seen when two or more different animal groups show the same characteristic or feature. For instances, birds and bats have wings. Fishes and dolphins have fins. Even if the structure seems similar and serves the same purpose, that is to fly or to swim, their origin is different, they are not derived from the same structure. They developed from different primitive structures to improve the animal or its progeny’s survival.



What is needed to succeed in Zoology?

To succeed in the field of zoology you must have a keen interest in animals and the desire to spend many hours working with them. Zoological research requires the use of careful, precise methods. You must have the self-motivation to work independently as zoological work can involve long periods of time conducting researching on your own. At other times you will need to work as part of a scientific team so you will need strong communication skills to convey your ideas and be able to cooperate with others.

Where will this course lead?

Zoology is a field which is changing and adapting in response to the factors affecting our wildlife today. For this reason, job opportunities in this field will be highly varied in the future so current students need to "think outside the box".

Employment opportunities exist in Private Organisations, Government Departments, Public Agencies, Scientific Organisations and Academic Institutions.

The following are just some of the areas where opportunities in Zoology may be found in the future:

  • Government Departments (e.g. Environment and Conservation; Agriculture; Water; Planning; Local Council)
  • Research in universities and scientific organisations
  • Fisheries
  • Aquaculture
  • Resources
  • Agriculture
  • Museums
  • Zoos
  • National Parks
  • Conservation
  • Wildlife management
  • Environmental regulation
  • Environmental legislation
  • Animal breeding and genetics industry
  • Inspection
  • Management
  • Wildlife refuge
  • Biotechnology
  • Education


  • Zoo Keeper, Wildlife Parks, Aquarium, Animal carer, fish, sharks, mammals, marsupials, ungulates, birds and primate care-takers

  • Animal technicians and researchers

  • Veterinary assistants, nurses and professionals

  • Farming or Pet Industry

  • Bird Sanctuaries, Aviaries and aviculture centres and companies

If you want to spend the greater proportion of your working life actually with vertebrates, then one of the animal caring professions may be for you. This includes such jobs as zoo keepers, aquaria keepers, aviaries, aviculture and fish culture centres and companies, animal breeders, farm workers, pet shop proprietors, nature park carers, animal technicians and animal researchers based at commercial research laboratories or universities, and veterinary staff.

Some of these jobs require minimal formal studies. All of these jobs require knowledge. This course is a good start, but further studies should normally follow.

For some of the better jobs a degree or diploma in a biological science may be needed, and in some countries even more advanced qualifications. Some vertebrates are "flagship species" for conservation projects (primates, aquatic mammals, African ungulates and carnivores, bears, marsupials). So, any conservation/environment job is likely to have a vertebrate related component.

Media Jobs
There is considerable media interest in primates: television documentaries; scientific and popular journalism; photography. There are a number of courses in film-making, media studies, journalism and photography that your careers service can tell you about.

Tourism Jobs
There are a growing number of travel companies that offer guided nature tours and safaris. They require specialist guides with excellent plant and animal knowledge, who are able to convey this information simply and interestingly.

Take advantage of the free Counselling Service we offer.
Contact one of our academic staff.
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Dr Robert Browne

Zoologist, Environmental Scientist and Sustainability, science based consultancy with biotechnology corporations. Work focused on conservation and sustainability. Robert has published work in the fields of nutrition, pathology, larval growth and develop
Bob James

Horticulturalist, Agriculturalist, Environmental consultant, Businessman and Professional Writer. Over 40 years in industry, Bob has held a wide variety of senior positions in both government and private enterprise. Bob has a Dip. Animal Husb, B.App.Sc.,
Dr. Gareth Pearce

Veterinary scientist and surgeon with expertise in agriculture and environmental science, with over 25 years of experience in teaching and research in agriculture, veterinary medicine, wildlife ecology and conservation in the UK, Australia and New Zealand
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