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Duration (approx) 100 hours
Qualification Statement of Attainment

Study the biology of fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles and mammals

  • An ideal course for animal lovers and those involved in animal care, protection, or management.
  • Learn about the form, structure and features of vertebrates.
  • Understand the genetic and environmental influences on vertebrates.
  • Understanding the classification and identification of different species are important factors in their care and well-being.

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Learn about the classification and identification of vertebrates - improve your knowledge of their requirements for their care and well-being

  • Learn about the taxonomy/classification of the different classes of vertebrates.
  • Learn about their form and structure and specific structural features.
  • Understand environmental and genetic influences on their development.
  • Understand why classification and how they fit into the environment is important in helping those involved in animal care to positively contribute to their well-being.

Vertebrate Zoology is the study of anything with a back bone, fish, reptiles, birds, mammals and more.  This fantastic course enables you to learn more about vertebrates and their zoology. What are the characteristics that distinguish fish from reptiles, and birds from marsupials? Learn this and lots more, laying a foundation to identify and understand all types of vertebrate animals. This course provides a thorough understanding of “higher” animals’: Zoology and Evolution, together with some principles on animal ecology and morphology.

Course Duration: 100 hours.

Start Date:
Start at any time - study at a pace that suits you, and with full tutor support for the duration of your studies.

Lessons: The course comprises 10 lessons as detailed, below.

Lesson 1. Vertebrate Taxonomy and Diversity Taxonomic Classifications  

  • Phylum, Division, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.
  • Vertebrata, Chordata (chordates), Acrania, Urochordata (Tunicata), Ascidia,
  • Synacidiae, Thaliacea (Salpae), Appendiculariae, Cyclostomata (Lampreys and Hagfish), Chondrichthyes (Sharks, Skates and Rays, Elephant Fishes), Osteichthyes (Bony Fishes) (Choanichthyes (Lungfish), 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.
  • Environmental and Genetic Influences.
  • Speciation, Diversification.
  • Convergence.
  • Food types and distribution.
  • Terminology.

Lesson 2. Fishes:  Fish Diversity - Covering major groups:

  • Class Agnatha (jawless fishes).
  • Class Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fishes).

Class Osteichthyes (bony fishes).  

Lesson 3.  Ectotherms – Amphibians and Reptiles

  • Definitions, Endothermy, Ectotermic, Tetrapods.
  • Urodela (Caudata) – Salamanders and Newts.
  • Order Anura (Salientia) – Frogs and Toads.
  • Order Apoda (Gymnophiona) – Caecilians.
  • Class Reptilia – Reptiles (Turtles, Lizards, Snakes, Crocodiles and the extinct Dinosauria).
  • Order Rhynchocephalia – Tuatara.
  • Order Chelonia (Testudines) – Turtles.
  • Order Crocodilia – Crocodilians.
  • Order Squamata – Lizards and Snakes.

Lesson 4. Birds

  • Physiology (Structure) and Anatomy, Feathers, Colour, Legs, Skeletal structure. Muscles, Senses.
  • Behaviour (Flight, Diving, etc).
  • Egg formation and Hatching.
  • Bird Taxonomy.
  • Ratitae (Flightless) Birds.
  • Carinatea (Flying Birds).
  • Bird orders ( eg. Grebes, Divers, Ducks, Geese and Swans, Storks, Flamingoes and Herons, Owls, Eagles, Falcons and Hawks, Pelicans, Gannets and Cormorants.
  • 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.

Lesson 5. Mammals (Mammalia)

  • Overview.
  • Taxonomy.
  • Sub classes Prototheria (egg laying animals).
  • Subclass Metatheria (Marsupials).
  • Subclass Eutatheria (Placental mammals - these include such diverse forms as Whales, Elephants, Shrews, and Armadillos, Dogs, Cats, Sheep, Cattle, Horses, Monkeys and Humans).

Lesson 6. Marsupials

  • Subclass Metatheria (e.g. Kangaroos, Koalas, Wombats, Bandicoots, Possums, Phalangers, etc).
  • Physiology.
  • Locomotion.
  • Reproduction.

Lesson 7. Grandorders Glires and Insectivora

  • Rodents, Rabbits, Pikas, Hedgehogs, Moles, Shrews and Tenrecs.
  • Taxonomy.
  • Structure.
  • Adaptations.

Lesson 8. Carnivores

  • Dogs, Wolves, Bears, Racoons, Cats, Weasels, Hyenas, Seals, Sea Lions and Walruses.
  • Taxonomy.
  • Physiology.
  • Adaptations.

Lesson 9. Hoofed Mammals (Ungulata).
There are seven separate orders within Ungulata as follows:

  • Order Artiodactyla. This includes: Hippopotamus, Deer, Giraffe, Sheep, Cattle, Antelope, Camelids;
  • Order Cetacea. This includes: Dolphins, Porpoises, Whales;
  • Order Perissodactyla. This includes: Horses, Rhinoceros, Tapirs;
  • Order Tubulidentata. This includes: Aardvarks;
  • Order Hyracoidea. This includes: Hyraxes (or Conies);
  • Order Proboscidea. This includes: Elephants;
  • Order Sirenia. This includes: Manatees and Dugongs.

Lesson 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 Bats;
  • Primates (Or Order Primates and sub order Strepsirhini) e.g. Humans, Monkeys, Apes and Lemurs.


  • 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.

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 will 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 hoofed 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 RESEARCH PROJECT - Prepare a report on the relationship between environmental conditions and Mammalian evolution.


You can start the course at any time.

It is studied by distance learning, so you can study in the comfort of your own home. But this doesn't mean you are all alone in your studies.  Our highly qualified and friendly tutors are there to help you every step of the way.  If you have any questions at all, they are always happy to help.

Understanding the classification of animals allows us to both identify different species, and understand differences and similarities between those different species.  Both of these things are core in managing the care and wellbeing of these animals and the environment which they are part of.  If you want to work with vertebrate animals in any capacity (wildlife, farm animals, pets and even vermin) you need to know how they are classified.

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.
      - Class Ascidia includes about 1,000 contemporary sessile filter-feeding animals also called Sea Squirts. Order Synacidiae includes species living in colonies, while order Monoscidiae includes solitary animals.
      - Class Thaliacea (Salpae) includes about 70 contemporary pelagic filter-feeder species shaped like a barrel, and is divided into three orders. Order Pyrosomidae consists of species living in colonies: orders Salpidae and Doliolidae consist of solitary species.
      - Class Appendiculariae includes about 60 small (several millimeters) pelagic species.
  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).

Class Mammalia - Mammals
Mammals are a class of animals that is often considered to be the highest class of all animals. From a zoological point of view, humans belong to this class. Mammals are four-limbed, warm-blooded, air-breathing animals. Mammals originated as terrestrial animals, and is the only class of animals that embraces all the environments available on Earth – terrestrial (carnivores, hoofed, elephants etc), underground (moles, gofers, marmots etc), air (bats), fresh water ecosystems (beavers, platypus, water rats), oceans (whales and dolphins, seals, dugongs and manatees) and polar ice caps (seals, walruses, polar fox, polar bear).

Mammals originated from reptilian ancestors, and the transition is so well documented that the limit between the two groups of animals is somewhat blurred. One of the reasons for that is because their bones are well mineralised, thus are better preserved in sediments across geological ages.

Mammals have hair-covered skin (secondary naked in some) with external glands. One type of glands, milk glands, is another distinctive feature of mammals found in no other group of animals, except for some fishes from Cichlidae family whose fry feed on mucous secretions from parents’ skin. The mammary glands give name to the class as they are the differentiating characteristic of the mammals from the other Tetrapods.

Unlike other vertebrates, mammals have a single bone in lower jaw and three inner ear bones. They have a distinctive cranium (head skeleton), jaw, teeth, pectoral girdle, muscles, brain and other structures. Fertilisation is always internal. All mammals are viviparous with the exception of Monotremes. Forelimbs can be transformed into wings,(bats), or flippers, (dolphins, whales, dugongs, seals). Hind limbs can be absent in Ocean mammals (whales, dugongs).

Three Groups of Mammals
The three groups of mammals are:
1. Prototheria – egg laying animals, several species found only in Australia;
2. Metatheria – marsupial animals found in Australia and South America;
3. Eutheria – includes the majority of contemporary species and is distributed in all continents of our planet.

Mammals comprise 3000 genera, of which 1000 are alive today. They are divided into two subclasses Theria and Prototheria.

There is no set route to start working in vertebrate zoology, people will follow many paths.  Working with wildlife is a very competitive industry, so to give yourself a head start it is essential to be enthusiastic, helpful and willing to learn.  Working as a volunteer is a great way to start working with animals. You will gain useful work experience and use courses such as our Vertebrate Zoology course to fill in any gaps in your learning and improve your knowledge of animals.

Does this look like the type of thing that would interest you?
One of our students has recently given us great feedback on her experiences with studying with ACS. Here is what she had to say -

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."



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Meet some of our academics

Dr. Gareth PearceGraduated from the University of Nottingham in 1982 with a B.Sc.(Hons) in Animal Science. Between 82 and 85 worked as Research Assistant and Demonstator in Animal Science at the University of Leeds. Over more than 30 years he has furthered his studies, obtaining eight significant university qualifications including degrees in Veterinary Science, Wildlife Conservation and Animal Behaviour. Gareth has significant teaching experience around the world as a faculty member at eight different universities including Associate Professor at Murdoch University and Director of Studies in Veterinary Science at Cambridge University. He has over 100 prestigious research papers published, and enjoys an outstanding international reputation in the fields of animal and veterinary science.

Check out our eBooks

BirdsIdeal for Ornithology students or the budding bird enthusiast, this ebook offers an ideal foundation on birds. Learn to identify birds from around the world with over 130 colour photographs and 117 pages of fascinating bird facts.
Horse CareThis book is an accumulation of information from biology, agricultural science and veterinary medicine. It looks to explore and explain the fundamentals of appropriate horse care aims and techniques. In doing so it will consider horsemanship as a combination of art and science.
Marine AnimalsWith colour photos splashed throughout, this Marine Animals e-book is designed to provide a guide for some of the more common animals found in marine ecosystems around the world. Learn about the creatures hidden by the other 70% of the earth's surface. Explore more...
Caring for DogsA book for both students and dog owners. This book has been designed to complement our dog care and pet care courses; but also to provide a sound foundation for choosing the right breed, and caring for a dog whether as a pet, or a working animal. Contents cover Breeds, Creating a healthy home for dogs, legal issues, dog biology, recognising poor health, parasites, illnesses, nutrition, reproduction, dog psychology, behavioural development, training tips, behaviour problems, grooming, working in the dog industry, and more.