Features Used to Classify Animals

Animal Characterization Based on Body Symmetry

Animals can be classified by three types of body plan symmetry: radial symmetry, bilateral symmetry, and asymmetry.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate among the ways in which animals can be characterized by body symmetry

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Animals with radial symmetry have no right or left sides, only a top or bottom; these species are usually marine organisms like jellyfish and corals.
  • Most animals are bilaterally symmetrical with a line of symmetry dividing their body into left and right sides along with a "head" and "tail" in addition to a top and bottom.
  • Only sponges (phylum Porifera) have asymmetrical body plans.
  • Some animals start life with one type of body symmetry, but develop a different type as adults; for example, sea stars are classified as bilaterally symmetrical even though their adult forms are radially symmetrical.

Key Terms

  • sagittal plane: divides the body into right and left halves
  • radial symmetry: a form of symmetry wherein identical parts are arranged in a circular fashion around a central axis
  • bilateral symmetry: having equal arrangement of parts (symmetry) about a vertical plane running from head to tail

Animal Characterization Based on Body Symmetry

At a very basic level of classification, true animals can be largely divided into three groups based on the type of symmetry of their body plan: radially symmetrical, bilaterally symmetrical, and asymmetrical. Only a few animal groups display radial symmetry, while asymmetry is a unique feature of phyla Porifera (sponges). All types of symmetry are well suited to meet the unique demands of a particular animal's lifestyle.

Radial Symmetry

Radial symmetry is the arrangement of body parts around a central axis, like rays on a sun or pieces in a pie. Radially symmetrical animals have top and bottom surfaces, but no left and right sides, or front and back. The two halves of a radially symmetrical animal may be described as the side with a mouth ("oral side") and the side without a mouth ("aboral side"). This form of symmetry marks the body plans of animals in the phyla Ctenophora (comb jellies) and Cnidaria (corals, sea anemones, and other jellies). Radial symmetry enables these sea creatures, which may be sedentary or only capable of slow movement or floating, to experience the environment equally from all directions.


Radial symmetry: Some organisms, like sea anemones (phylum Cnidaria), have radial symmetry.

Bilateral Symmetry

Bilateral symmetry involves the division of the animal through a sagittal plane, resulting in two mirror-image, right and left halves, such as those of a butterfly, crab, or human body. Animals with bilateral symmetry have a "head" and "tail" (anterior vs. posterior), front and back (dorsal vs. ventral), and right and left sides. All true animals, except those with radial symmetry, are bilaterally symmetrical. The evolution of bilateral symmetry and, therefore, the formation of anterior and posterior (head and tail) ends promoted a phenomenon called cephalization, which refers to the collection of an organized nervous system at the animal's anterior end. In contrast to radial symmetry, which is best suited for stationary or limited-motion lifestyles, bilateral symmetry allows for streamlined and directional motion. In evolutionary terms, this simple form of symmetry promoted active mobility and increased sophistication of resource-seeking and predator-prey relationships.


Bilateral symmetry: This monarch butterfly demonstrates bilateral symmetry down the sagittal plane, with the line of symmetry running from ventral to dorsal and dividing the body into two left and right halves.

Animals in the phylum Echinodermata (such as sea stars, sand dollars, and sea urchins) display radial symmetry as adults, but their larval stages exhibit bilateral symmetry. This is termed secondary radial symmetry. They are believed to have evolved from bilaterally symmetrical animals; thus, they are classified as bilaterally symmetrical.


Secondary radial symmetry in echinoderms: The larvae of echinoderms (sea stars, sand dollars, and sea urchins) have bilateral symmetry as larvae, but develop radial symmetry as full adults.


Only members of the phylum Porifera (sponges) have no body plan symmetry. There are some fish species, such as flounder, that lack symmetry as adults. However, the larval fish are bilaterally symmetrical.

Animal Characterization Based on Features of Embryological Development

Animals may be characterized by the presence of a coelom, formation of the mouth, and type of cell cleavage during embryonic development.

Learning Objectives

Explain the ways in which animals can be characterized by features of embryological development

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Diploblasts contain two germ layers (inner endoderm and outer ectoderm ), while triploblasts contain three germ layers (endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm).
  • The endoderm becomes the digestive and respiratory tracts; the ectoderm becomes the outer epithelial covering of the body surface and the central nervous system; and the mesoderm becomes all muscle tissues, connective tissues, and most other organs.
  • Triploblasts can be further categorized into those without a coelom ( acoelomates ), those with a true coelom (eucoelomates), and those with "false" coeloms ( pseudocoelomates ).
  • Bilaterally symmetrical, tribloblastic eucoelomates can be divided into protostomes, those animals that develop a mouth first, and deuterstomes, those animals that develop an anus first and a mouth second.
  • In protostomes, the coelom forms when the mesoderm splits through the process of schizocoely, while in deuterostomes, the coelom forms when the mesoderm pinches off through the process of enterocoely.
  • Protostomes undergo spiral cleavage, while deuterostomes undergo radial cleavage.

Key Terms

  • protostome: any animal in which the mouth is derived first from the embryonic blastopore ("mouth first")
  • deuterostome: Any animal in which the initial pore formed during gastrulation becomes the anus, and the second pore becomes the mouth
  • diploblast: a blastula in which there are two primary germ layers: the ectoderm and endoderm
  • triploblast: a blastula in which there are three primary germ layers: the ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm; formed during gastrulation of the blastula
  • acoelomate: any animal without a coelom, or body cavity
  • coelomate: any animal possessing a fluid-filled cavity within which the digestive system is suspended.
  • schizocoely: the process by which protostome animal embryos develop; it occurs when a coelom (body cavity) is formed by splitting the mesodermal embryonic tissue
  • enterocoely: the process by which deuterostome animal embryos develop; the coelom forms from pouches "pinched" off of the digestive tract

Animal Characterization Based on Features of Embryological Development

Most animal species undergo a separation of tissues into germ layers during embryonic development. These germ layers are formed during gastrulation, developing into the animal's specialized tissues and organs. Animals develop either two or three embryonic germs layers. Radially-symmetrical animals are diploblasts, developing two germ layers: an inner layer (endoderm) and an outer layer (ectoderm). Diploblasts have a non-living layer between the endoderm and ectoderm. Bilaterally-symmetrical animals are called triploblasts, developing three tissue layers: an inner layer (endoderm), an outer layer (ectoderm), and a middle layer (mesoderm).


Germ development in embryogenesis: During embryogenesis, diploblasts develop two embryonic germ layers: an ectoderm and an endoderm. Triploblasts develop a third layer, the mesoderm, between the endoderm and ectoderm

Germ Layers

Each of the three germ layers in a blastula, or developing ball of cells, becomes particular body tissues and organs. The endoderm gives rise to the stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas, and the lining of the digestive tract, as well as to the lining of the trachea, bronchi, and lungs of the respiratory tract. The ectoderm develops into the outer epithelial covering of the body surface and the central nervous system. The mesoderm, the third germ layer forming between the endoderm and ectoderm in triploblasts, gives rise to all muscle tissues (including the cardiac tissues and muscles of the intestines), connective tissues such as the skeleton and blood cells, and most other visceral organs such as the kidneys and the spleen.

Presence or Absence of a Coelom

Triploblasts can be differentiated into three categories: those that do not develop an internal body cavity called a coelom (acoelomates), those with a true coelom (eucoelomates), and those with "false" coeloms (pseudocoelomates).


Differentiation in triploblasts: Triploblasts may be (a) acoelomates, (b) eucoelomates, or (c) pseudocoelomates. Acoelomates have no body cavity. Eucoelomates have a body cavity within the mesoderm, called a coelom, which is lined with mesoderm. Pseudocoelomates also have a body cavity, but it is sandwiched between the endoderm and mesoderm.


Triploblasts that do not develop a coelom are called acoelomates: their mesoderm region is completely filled with tissue. Flatworms in the phylum Platyhelminthes are acoelomates.


Eucoelomates (or coelomates) have a true coelom that arises entirely within the mesoderm germ layer and is lined by an epithelial membrane. This coelomic cavity represents a fluid-filled space that lies between the visceral organs and the body wall. It houses the digestive system, kidneys, reproductive organs, and heart, and it contains the circulatory system. The epithelial membrane also lines the organs within the coelom, connecting and holding them in position while allowing them some free motion. Annelids, mollusks, arthropods, echinoderms, and chordates are all eucoelomates. The coelom also provides space for the diffusion of gases and nutrients, as well as body flexibility and improved animal motility. The coelom also provides cushioning and shock absorption for the major organ systems, while allowing organs to move freely for optimal development and placement.


The pseudocoelomates have a coelom derived partly from mesoderm and partly from endoderm. Although still functional, these are considered false coeloms. The phylum Nematoda (roundworms) is an example of a pseudocoelomate.

Embryonic Development of the Mouth

Bilaterally symmetrical, tribloblastic eucoelomates can be further divided into two groups based on differences in their early embryonic development. These two groups are separated based on which opening of the digestive cavity develops first: mouth (protostomes) or anus (deuterostomes). The word protostome comes from the Greek word meaning "mouth first. " The protostomes include arthropods, mollusks, and annelids. Deuterostome originates from the word meaning "mouth second. " Deuterostomes include more complex animals such as chordates, but also some simple animals such as echinoderms.


Early embryonic development in eucoelomates: Eucoelomates can be divided into two groups based on their early embryonic development. In protostomes, part of the mesoderm separates to form the coelom in a process called schizocoely. In deuterostomes, the mesoderm pinches off to form the coelom in a process called enterocoely.

Development of the Coelom

The coelom of most protostomes is formed through a process called schizocoely, when a solid mass of the mesoderm splits apart and forms the hollow opening of the coelom. Deuterostomes differ in that their coelom forms through a process called enterocoely, when the mesoderm develops as pouches that are pinched off from the endoderm tissue. These pouches eventually fuse to form the mesoderm, which then gives rise to the coelom.

Embryonic Cleavage

Protostomes undergo spiral cleavage: the cells of one pole of the embryo are rotated and, thus, misaligned with respect to the cells of the opposite pole. This spiral cleavage is due to the oblique angle of the cleavage. Protostomes also undergo determinate cleavage: the developmental fate of each embryonic cell is pre-determined. Deuterostomes undergo radial cleavage where the cleavage axes are either parallel or perpendicular to the polar axis, resulting in the alignment of the cells between the two poles. Unlike protostomes, deuterostomes undergo indeterminate cleavage: cells remain undifferentiated until a later developmental stage. This characteristic of deuterostomes is reflected in the existence of familiar embryonic stem cells, which have the ability to develop into any cell type.

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