Learn about vertebrate animals we share our gardens with from birds and lizards to our pet dogs and cats. Understand animal taxonomy and classification.

Course Code: BEN104
Fee Code: S3
Duration (approx) Duration (approx) 100 hours
Qualification Statement of Attainment
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An Ideal Start For Studying Or Working With Animals

If you want to spend the greater proportion of your working life actually with vertebrates, this course will give you a thorough understanding of “higher” animals zoology and evolution, together with some principles on animal ecology and morphology.

Study zoology to improve career opportunities, for professional development, or to simply pursue a passion you have. The course is great for people working in farming, zoos or wildlife parks, animal rescue, conservation, environmental protection, park management, veterinary services, or tourism.

Lesson Structure

There are 11 lessons in this course:

  1. Vertebrate Taxonomy & Diversity Taxonomic Classifications
    • Phylum, Division, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species
    • Vertebrata, Chordata, Acrania, Urochordata, Ascidia, Synacidiae, Thaliacea, Appendiculariae, Cyclostomata, Chondrichthyes, Osteichthyes, Choanichthyes, Amphibia, Reptilia, Aves, Mammalia
    • Morphology And Evolution
    • Environmental And Genetic Influences
    • Speciation, Diversification
    • Convergence
    • Food Types & Distribution
    • Terminology
  2. Fishes - Fish Diversity
    • Class Agnatha - Jawless Fishes
    • Class Chondrichthyes - Cartilaginous Fishes
    • Class Osteichthyes - Bony Fishes
  3. Ectotherms – Amphibians & Reptiles
    • Definitions, Endothermy, Ectotermic, Tetrapods
    • Urodela (Caudata) – Salamanders & Newts
    • Order Anura (Salientia) – Frogs & Toads
    • Order Apoda (Gymnophiona) – Caecilians
    • Class Reptilia – Reptiles (Turtles, Lizards, Snakes, Crocodiles & The Extinct Dinosauria)
    • Order Rhynchocephalia – Tuatara
    • Order Chelonia (Testudines) – Turtles
    • Order Crocodilia – Crocodilians
    • Order Squamata – Lizards & Snakes
  4. Birds - Aves
    • Physiology & Anatomy - Feathers, Colour, Legs, Skeletal Structure, Muscles, Senses
    • Behaviour
    • Egg Formation & Hatching
    • Bird Taxonomy
    • Ratitae - Flightless Birds
    • Carinatea - Flying Birds
    • Bird Orders - Grebes, Divers, Ducks, Geese & Swans, Storks, Flamingoes & Herons, Owls, Eagles, Falcons & Hawks, Pelicans, Gannets And Cormorants
    • Chickens, Turkeys, Game Birds & Mount Birds
    • Rails, Coots & Cranes
    • Pigeons & Sand Grouse
    • Gulls, Auks & Plovers
    • Parrots, Parakeets, Hummingbirds, Swifts, Woodpeckers, Toucans, Kingfishers, Bee-Eaters & Hornbills, Trogonos, Quetzals, Plumed Birds
    • Perching Birds Such As Sparrows, Starlings, Swallows - Passeriformes
    • Diving Birds, Loons, Cuckoos, Coucals Nighthawks, Whippoorwills, Mousebirds
  5. Mammals - Mammalia
    • Overview
    • Taxonomy
    • Sub Classes Prototheria - Egg Laying Animals
    • Subclass Metatheria - Marsupials
    • Subclass Eutatheria - Placental Mammals
  6. Marsupials - Metatheria
    • Physiology
    • Locomotion
    • Reproduction
  7. Grandorders Glires & Insectivora
    • Rodents, Rabbits, Pikas, Hedgehogs, Moles, Shrews & Tenrecs
    • Taxonomy
    • Structure
    • Adaptations
  8. Carnivores
    • Dogs, Wolves, Bears, Racoons, Cats, Weasels, Hyenas, Seals, Sea Lions & Walruses
    • Taxonomy
    • Physiology
    • Adaptations
  9. Hoofed Mammals - Ungulata
    • Order Artiodactyla
    • Order Cetacea
    • Order Perissodactyla
    • Order Tubulidentata
    • Order Hyracoidea
    • Order Proboscidea
    • Order Sirenia
  10. Primates And Other Archonta
    • Order Scandentia
    • Order Dermoptera
    • Order Chiroptera
    • Order Primates & Sub Order Strepsirhini - Humans, Monkeys, Apes & Lemurs
  11. Problem-Based Learning Project


  • 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

  • Observe and report on the range of animals in a Zoo, Wildlife Park or even a Pet Shop.
  • Identify and report on different orders of fish in an aquarium supply shop, marine park, fish retailer, or other facility.
  • 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 in the wild, or captivity.
  • Investigate the biological characteristics of one species of mammal.
  • Research a particular family or genus of marsupial.
  • Observe and report on any animals from the Glires or Insectivora at a pet shop or zoo.
  • Using knowledge from the course and technical terminology compile a scientific description and observations of a dog you have observed.
  • List animals belonging to the grandorder Ungulata at a farm, pet shop or zoo.
  • Research an order, family, genus or species of hooved Mammal(Ungulata).
  • By observation compile a report comparing any similarities and dissimilarities between apes/monkeys and humans. Research their physical and behavioural characteristics with a view to comparing these with human characteristics.

Learn How Different Animals are Named (Scientifically)

In the 18th century a scientist called Carl Linnaeus began a revolution in the way we name living organisms, dividing everything into three Kingdoms; animals, plants and minerals. 
The Linnaeus system also organised living organisms into a series of different levels of classification, which he called ranks, that resulted in a tree like structure with the Kingdom at the base then diverging through the different ranks:

  • The Kingdom of animals was divided into Classes such a fish, mammals or birds.

  • Classes were divided into Orders

  • Orders into Families

  • Families into Genera

  • Genera into Species

Therefore, each species had a binomial name consisting of its Generic name with a capital and specific name. ie, domestic cat Felis (happy) catus (cat). Note: Scientific names are preferably italicised, but may be underlined. Each species could also 

Since the time of Linnaeus, there have been changes to how different organisms are classified, but the framework for classification has not changed. One change is that there are more kingdoms than there were originally.

Modern Science has Changed Taxonomy
With the use of genetics to determine phylogeny, increasing detailed knowledge of morphology and knowledge of the fossil record and geology; our understanding of the evolution of animal species is much more informed than in Linnaeus’ time At extremes some argue strongly for a “rank free” system of classification but the vast majority still broadly support and use the use of Linnaeus’ system. Nevertheless, scientists currently generally consider that the higher level ranks, above Order, consist of Domains Bacteria and Archaea (no distinct nucleus, bacteria etc), and the Eucaryota (distinct nucleus), which are for instance divided into the Kingdoms of animals, plants, protozoa and fungi.
The International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature acts as a global authority for managing the naming of animals internationally. They produce & manage any changes to an International Code for Zoological Nomenclature; which provides a central reference that all animal taxonomists can refer to. Because of the low cost of genetic analysis the description of a new species now must include a phylogenetic genetic analysis.  
As we learn more about animals (and plants); and understand the genetic, chemical and anatomical similarities and differences in ever increasing detail, our perception of the relationships between different organisms continues to grow. The current avalanche of knowledge has resulted in vibrant and sometimes heated debate among scientific schools of thought, especially in terms of higher classification (ranks), and generally more certainty and ironically sometimes uncertainty at the species level.  

Example - How Carnivores are Classified

The grandorder Ferae includes one single order: Carnivora; the Carnivores. This group includes dogs, wolves, bears, raccoons, cats, weasels, hyenas, seals, sea lions and walruses.  

Two living superfamilies of carnivores are usually recognised:

  • Arctoidea (or Canoidea), with the families Canidae, Ursidae, Procyonidae, and Mustelidae; and the

  • Aeluroidea (or Feloidea), with the families Viverridae, Hyaenidae, and Felidae.  The Pinnipedia includes families Odobenidae, Phocidae and Otariidae. 

The 12 carnivore families are the:

  • Canidae (dogs, jackals, fox, wolves)

  • Ursidae (bears, panda)

  • Procyonidae (raccoons, lesser panda)

  • Mustelidae (otters, weasels, badgers, mink)

  • Mephitidae (skunks-previously part of Mustelidae)

  • Viverridae (civets, genets)

  • Herpestidae (mongooses-often considered part of Viverridae)

  • Hyaenidae (hyenas, aardwolf)

  • Felidae (cats, lion, tiger)

  • Odobenidae (walrus)

  • Phocidae (true, earless, or hair seals)

  • Otariidae (eared seals, sea lions)

Where Can This Course Lead?

This course can be of great benefit to anyone in an animal based career or those taking their first steps on the road to such a career. These include:

  • Animal care-takers - fish, sharks, mammals, birds and primate care-takers
  • Animal technicians and researchers
  • Veterinary assistants, nurses and professionals
  • Farming or Pet Industry
  • Aviaries and aviculture centres and companies
  • Nature park carers
  • Zoo workers
  • Nature guides

Learn More about all the Different types of Vertebrates - Enrol Today

Course Contributors

The following academics were involved in the development and/or updating of this course.

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

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

Kara Wight - BSc (Applied Bioscience and Zoology), HND (Animal Care), HND (Photography & Imaging)

Kara gained an HND in Animal Care and graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Applied Bioscience and Zoology. She has a wide range of experience working with animals such dogs, small pets, birds, zoo animals, British wildlife and reptiles. Kara

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