Biological classification provides a way to divide organisms in to groups that are most closely related by evolution. A descending scale (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus) of categories serves to group organisms in to more closely related categories. The lowest category in this scale is the species, and includes all those organisms that can or could reproduce with each other.

A species is precisely named by a two word combination—as Tyrannosaurus rex or Homo sapiens (modern man). These are Greek or Latin word combinations; the first word is capitalized and is the genus-name; the second is the species-level name. The binomial (e.g., genus and species) name of an organism must be written in italics. Paleontologists and biologists often change the higher levels of classification schemes for organisms as they improve the understanding of evolutionary relationships. The old division of life into
the plant and animal kingdoms is no longer used by scientists. Indeed, five kingdoms (bacteria, protistans [one-celled animal- and plant-like organisms), fungae [mushrooms, mold, and their relatives], animals [multicellular organisms that feed on other organisms], and plants [includes green algae and typical land plants]) are now recognized
by most scientists.

There are two classical definitions that separate animals from plants. The first makes the distinction by noting that the cell membrane of plants secretes a hard protective covering called a cell wall that is made of cellulose. An animal cell does not produce a cell wall. The second definition notes that plants manufacture their own food by photosynthesis. Animals must eat other organisms or the products of organisms. Animals can be divided into two major groups. The vertebrate animals (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals [including humans]) have a backbone or similar stiffening rod and a dorsal nerve cord just above the backbone—these structures compose the spine in humans.
Invertebrates (which include most animals on earth, and range from worms to starfish) lack a spine and commonly have a major nerve cord that surrounds the mouth and extends along the lower surface of the animal.

The following classification is used in throughout this document:

Invertebrate Fossils
1. Protozoa
2. Porifera
3. Coelenterata
4. Bryozoa
5. Brachiopoda
6. Mollusca
7. Arthropoda
8. Echinodermata
9. Hemichordata

Next >> Protozoa (first animal)


The New York State Geological Survey (NYSGS) is a bureau of
the New York State Museum in the New York State Education Department.