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Understanding the Characteristics of Vertebrates

By Elizabeth Wistrom

Each of the 5 different types of vertebrates have unique characteristics in common. Here, students will learn about the characteristics of vertebrates in each of the 5 categories. Use this as a stand-alone lesson, or in conjunction with the other lessons about vertebrates in the series.

Background Knowledge

At the end of this lesson, students will be able to correctly identify the characteristics of vertebrates in each of the 5 categories: fish, Dinosaur mammal, bird, amphibian and reptile. Students will demonstrate this knowledge by creating a presentation which explains the 5 categories of vertebrates and each of the corresponding characteristics.

Before discussing the characteristics for each group of vertebrates, students should have a good understanding of what a vertebrate is,

and which animal categories are classified as vertebrates. Simple discussion should be adequate for assessing whether or not students posses the appropriate background knowledge. The teacher should look specifically for answers indicating that Vertebrates are animals possessing a backbone, and that there are 5 groups of animals which are considered vertebrates (fish, mammal, bird, amphibian and reptile.) If the teacher believes the students do not possess adequate understanding of what constitutes a Vertebrate, the class should revisit the previous lessons in this series, which cover each of these topics.

Students should also understand that when items are sorted into categories, the placement is based on identifiable characteristics. All members of the same group share similar characteristics. Vertebrates are sorted into categories depending on their skin covering, the type and features of their limbs, how they reproduce and how they maintain their body temperature.

Science Notebooks

You may wish to consider requiring the students to keep track of the animal facts they learn in their very own science notebook. For older students, this may be simply a portion of an existing science notebook. For younger students, you may wish to staple together 6 sheets of paper - one page for each of the 5 categories of mammals and one page to serve as the front cover for the "notebook."

Students will use these notebooks to keep track of the characteristics learned from the below discussions. Later, students will use the notes to create a culminating project showcasing what they have learned.


Mammalas Your students are most likely very familiar with mammals - especially since they are mammals themselves! Ask the children to name some common mammals. Write their names on your chalkboard or white board. Next, ask the students what characteristics readily come to mind when they picture these animals. The most common answer will be that mammals have hair, or fur, on their body. Some students may also know that mammals are able to regulate their own body temperature. One other fact your students may, or may not, know is that mammals birth their babies, and that female mammals have the ability to produce milk which they use to feed their young.


Ask students to name several examples of reptiles. Some of the most common reptiles your students would be familiar with include alligators, turtle1024x768 crocodiles, snakes, lizards and turtles. As with the mammals, ask students to share what they know about reptiles. One answer might be that reptiles have scales on their body. Another fact is that reptiles breathe air - even though some live in the water. Students may, or may not, know that reptiles give birth by laying eggs. A final important characteristic of reptiles is that they are cold-blooded. This means that they can't regulate their own body temperature because (unlike mammals) their bodies take on the temperature of their surroundings.


Continue to follow the same procedure of discovery as laid out in the discussions above. Ask students to name common amphibians and then share what they know about amphibians in general. Some of the facts you should cover are that untitled amphibians lay their eggs in water, the babies begin in a larvae stage but eventually live on land, they are cold-blooded (like reptiles), they hibernate in the winter, and that they have skin which does not have any scales, hair or feathers. Animals which fall into the amphibian category include frogs, toads and salamanders.


Fish Continuing on in your discussion, and in the same manner, begin to look for characteristic similarities among fish. Students should understand that fish breathe underwater through gills, they have fins, they are cold-blooded, they have scales, and they lay eggs in the water.


The final discussion will be about birds. Bird Birds have four important characteristics in common: birds lay eggs, they are warm-blooded (like mammals), they have wings to help them fly, and they boast feathers and a beak.

Extend the Lesson and Demonstrate Mastery

You can use the learned information about vertebrates to complete a vertebrate webquests in the classroom. Students can also use the information found in their science notebooks to complete their own presentations showing what they have learned about the characteristics of vertebrates. Depending on the age of the students, as well as time and resources available, these projects could range from a simple poster (using animal photos which have been drawn, found on the Internet and cut from magazines) to the more complex powerpoint presentation. Student projects should include the following:

  • simple definition of what a vertebrate is
  • a list of the 5 categories of vertebrates
  • several examples of animals for each of the 5 categories
  • characteristics of vertebrates common to the animals in each of the 5 categories