Features Used to Classify Animals

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. Asymmetry is seen in two modern clades, the Parazoa (Figurea) and Placozoa. (Although we should note that the ancestral fossils of the Parazoa apparently exhibited bilateral symmetry.) One clade, the Cnidaria (Figureb,c), exhibits radial or biradial symmetry: Ctenophores have rotational symmetry (Figuree). Bilateral symmetry is seen in the largest of the clades, the Bilateria (Figured); however the Echinodermata are bilateral as larvae and metamorphose secondarily into radial adults. All types of symmetry are well suited to meet the unique demands of a particular animal’s lifestyle.

Radial symmetry is the arrangement of body parts around a central axis, as is seen in a bicycle wheel or pie. It results in animals having top and bottom surfaces but no left and right sides, nor front or back. If a radially symmetrical animal is divided in any direction along the oral/aboral axis (the side with a mouth is “oral side,” and the side without a mouth is the “aboral side”), the two halves will be mirror images. This form of symmetry marks the body plans of many animals in the phyla Cnidaria, including jellyfish and adult sea anemones (Figureb, c). Radial symmetry equips these sea creatures (which may be sedentary or only capable of slow movement or floating) to experience the environment equally from all directions. Bilaterally symmetrical animals, like butterflies (Figured) have only a single plane along which the body can be divided into equivalent halves. The Ctenophora (Figuree), although they look similar to jellyfish, are considered to have rotational symmetry rather than radial or biradial symmetry because division of the body into two halves along the oral/aboral axis divides them into two copies of the same half, with one copy rotated 180o, rather than two mirror images.

Part a shows several sponges, which form irregular, bumpy blobs on the sea floor. Part b shows a jellyfish with long, slender tentacles, radiating from a flexible, disc-shaped body. Part c shows an anemone sitting on the sea floor with thick tentacles, radiating up from a cup-shaped body. Part d shows a black butterfly with two symmetrical wings. Part e shows a beroe, which is a type of jelly fish, semi-transparent with more solid ribs and a visible opening at one end.
Symmetry in animals. The (a) sponge is asymmetrical. The (b) jellyfish and (c) anemone are radially symmetrical, the (d) butterfly is bilaterally symmetrical. Rotational symmetry (e) is seen in the ctenophore Beroe, shown swimming open-mouthed. (credit a: modification of work by Andrew Turner; credit b: modification of work by Robert Freiburger; credit c: modification of work by Samuel Chow; credit d: modification of work by Cory Zanker; credit e: modification of work by NOAA)

Bilateral symmetry involves the division of the animal through a midsagittal plane, resulting in two superficially mirror images, right and left halves, such as those of a butterfly (Figured), 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 (Figure). All Eumetazoa except those with secondary radial symmetry are bilaterally symmetrical. The evolution of bilateral symmetry that allowed for 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 and controlled directional mobility and increased sophistication of resource-seeking and predator-prey relationships.

The illustration shows a woman’s body dissected into planes. The coronal plane separates the front from the back. The front of the body is the ventral side, and the back of the body is the dorsal side. The upper body is defined as cranial, and the lower body is defined as caudal. The sagittal plane dissects the body from side to side. The medial line goes through the center of the body. The areas to the left and right of the medial line are defined as lateral. Parts of the body close to the medial line are proximal, and those further away are distal.
Bilateral symmetry. The bilaterally symmetrical human body can be divided by several planes.

Animals in the phylum Echinodermata (such as sea stars, sand dollars, and sea urchins) display modified radial symmetry as adults, but as we have noted, their larval stages (such as the bipinnaria) initially exhibit bilateral symmetry until they metamorphose in animals with radial symmetry (this is termed secondary radial symmetry). Echinoderms evolved from bilaterally symmetrical animals; thus, they are classified as bilaterally symmetrical.

Link to Learning

Watch this video to see a quick sketch of the different types of body symmetry.

2 of 7