Science, Tech, Math › Animals & Nature Chordates Scientific name: Chordata Share Flipboard Email Print These dunlins belong to the vertebrates, one of the three groups of chordates alive today. Johann Schumacher / Getty Images Science, Tech, Math Amphibians Birds Habitat Profiles Mammals Reptiles Wildlife Conservation Insects Marine Life Forestry Dinosaurs Evolution View More By Laura Klappenbach Ecology Expert M.S., Applied Ecology, Indiana University Bloomington B.S., Biology and Chemistry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Laura Klappenbach, M.S., is a science writer specializing in ecology, biology, and wildlife. our editorial process Laura Klappenbach Updated February 20, 2019 Chordates (Chordata) are a group of animals that includes vertebrates, tunicates, lancelets. Of these, the vertebrates—lampreys, mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fishes—are the most familiar and are the group to which humans belong. Chordates are bilaterally symmetrical, which means there is a line of symmetry that divides their body into halves that are roughly mirror images of each other. Bilateral symmetry is not unique to chordates. Other groups of animals—arthropods, segmented worms, and echinoderms—exhibit bilateral symmetry (although in the case of echinoderms, they are bilaterally symmetrical only during the larval stage of their life cycle; as adults they exhibit pentaradial symmetry). All chordates have a notochord that is present during some or all of their life cycle. A notochord is a semi-flexible rod that provides structural support and serves as an anchor for the animal's large body muscles. The notochord consists of a core of semi-fluid cells enclosed in a fibrous sheath. The notochord extends the length of the animal's body. In vertebrates, the notochord is only present during the embryonic stage of development, and is later replaced when vertebrae develop around the notochord to form the backbone. In tunicates, the notochord remains present throughout the animal's entire life cycle. Chordates have a single, tubular nerve cord that runs along the back (dorsal) surface of the animal which, in most species, forms a brain at the front (anterior) end of the animal. They also have pharyngeal pouches that are present at some stage in their life cycle. In vertebrates, pharyngeal pouches develop into various different structures such as the middle ear cavity, the tonsils, and the parathyroid glands. In aquatic chordates, the pharyngeal pouches develop into pharyngeal slits which serve as openings between the pharyngeal cavity and the external environment. Another characteristic of chordates is a structure called the endostyle, a ciliated groove on the ventral wall of the pharynx that secretes mucus and traps small food particles that enter the pharyngeal cavity. The endostyle is present in tunicates and lancelets. In vertebrates, the endostyle is replaced by the thyroid, an endocrine gland located in the neck. Key Characteristics The key characteristics of chordates include: notochorddorsal tubular nerve cordpharyngeal pouches and slitsendostyle or thyroidpostnatal tail Species Diversity More than 75,000 species Classification Chordates are classified within the following taxonomic hierarchy: Animals > Chordates Chordates are divided into the following taxonomic groups: Lancelets (Cephalochordata) - There are about 32 species of lancelets alive today. Members of this group have a notochord that persists throughout their entire life cycle. Lancelets are marine animals that have long narrow bodies. The earliest known fossil lancelet,Yunnanozoon, lived about 530 million years ago during the Cambrian Period. Fossil lancelets were also found in the famous fossil beds of the Burgess Shale in British Columbia.Tunicates (Urochordata) - There are about 1,600 species species of tunicates alive today. Members of this group include sea squirts, larvaceans and thaliaceans. Tunicates are marine filter-feeders, most of which live a sessile life as adults, attached to rocks or other hard surfaces on the seafloor.Vertebrates (Vertebrata) - There are about 57,000 species of vertebrates alive today. Members of this group include lampreys, mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fishes. In vertebrates, the notochord is replaced during development by multiple vertebrae that make up the backbone. Sources Hickman C, Robers L, Keen S, Larson A, I'Anson H, Eisenhour D. Integrated Principles of Zoology 14th ed. Boston MA: McGraw-Hill; 2006. 910 p. Shu D, Zhang X, Chen L. Reinterpretation of Yunnanozoon as the earliest known hemichordate. Nature. 1996;380(6573):428-430.