149 Introduction

Examples of critically endangered vertebrate species include (a) the Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris), (b) the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei), and (c) the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja). (The harpy eagle is considered “near threatened” globally, but critically endangered in much of its former range in Mexico and Central America.) (credit a: modification of work by Dave Pape; credit b: modification of work by Dave Proffer; credit c: modification of work by Haui Ared)

Photos show a tiger, a gorilla, and an eagle.

Vertebrates are among the most recognizable organisms of the Animal Kingdom, and more than 62,000 vertebrate species have been identified. The vertebrate species now living represent only a small portion of the vertebrates that have existed in the past. The best-known extinct vertebrates are the dinosaurs, a unique group of reptiles, some of which reached sizes not seen before or after in terrestrial animals. In fact, they were the dominant terrestrial animals for 150 million years, until most of them died out in a mass extinction near the end of the Cretaceous period (except for the feathered theropod ancestors of modern birds, whose direct descendents now number nearly 10,000 species). Although it is not known with certainty what caused this mass extinction (not only of dinosaurs, but of many other groups of organisms), a great deal is known about the anatomy of the dinosaurs and early birds, given the preservation of numerous skeletal elements, nests, eggs, and embryos in the fossil record.

The vertebrates exhibit two major innovations in their evolution from the invertebrate chordates. These innovations may be associated with the whole genome duplications that resulted in a quadruplication of the basic chordate genome, including the Hox gene loci that regulate the placement of structures along the three axes of the body. One of the first major steps was the emergence of the quadrupeds in the form of the amphibians. A second step was the evolution of the amniotic egg, which, similar to the evolution of pollen and seeds in plants, freed terrestrial animals from their dependence on water for fertilization and embryonic development. Within the amniotes, modifications of keratinous epidermal structures have given rise to scales, claws, hair, and feathers. The scales of reptiles sealed their skins against water loss, while hair and feathers provided insulation to support the evolution of endothermy, as well as served other functions such as camouflage and mate attraction in the vertebrate lineages that led to birds and mammals.

Currently, a number of vertebrate species face extinction primarily due to habitat loss and pollution. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, more than 6,000 vertebrate species are classified as threatened. Amphibians and mammals are the classes with the greatest percentage of threatened species, with 29 percent of all amphibians and 21 percent of all mammals classified as threatened. Attempts are being made around the world to prevent the extinction of threatened species. For example, the Biodiversity Action Plan is an international program, ratified by 188 countries, which is designed to protect species and habitats.


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Introduction by OpenStax Biology 2nd Edition is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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