Animals with an internal skeleton made of bone are called vertebrates. There are over 85,000 vertebrate species, all classified into five groups: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. The defining characteristic of all vertebrates is the backbone. The backbone extends through the core of the body and allows a vertebrate to hold its shape. The backbone also houses and protects the spinal cord that passes through it. Repeating units called vertebrae make up the backbone. In many species, there are shock-absorbing discs between the vertebrae to cushion them during movement.
In this set of activities, children will learn about vertebrates and some characteristics that distinguish them. Start by having children feel their own backbones and one of a friend. What do they notice about it? Explain that many animals have a backbone just like they do, and that those animals are called vertebrates. Have them say that word out loud together. How are backbones important to them and other vertebrates?
Show children a picture of a skeleton. Is this skeleton from a vertebrate? How do they know? Where is the backbone? How is it like their backbone? Can they tell what part of the body other bones come from? What animal do they think this skeleton is from?
Ask children to name other animals that are vertebrates. List these animals on the board. Try to come up with at least one animal from each group (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals). Talk about what makes a bird a bird and a fish a fish, etc. Can they think of any animals that are not vertebrates?
Go on a vertebrate safari. Head outdoors to look for as many different animals with backbones as you can find. What vertebrates do they think they will see? Look with their eyes and listen with their ears. When they see or hear a vertebrate, they should say what kind it is (fish, amphibian, reptile, bore or mammal). Why do they think so? What was it doing? How is it moving? (Record responses.) Back at the classroom tally up which group of vertebrates they saw most often and least often. Why?
For these activities and more vertebrate craft, snack, and music fun, use Growing Up WILD’s “Backbone Bonanza.”
Kindernature.org has a wide variety of activities, songs, games and crafts about all five groups of vertebrates.
Visit a local nature center or welcome animal guests into your classroom! Your county naturalist is a wealth of information and tools for programs too! Some may even have a live representative of each of the vertebrate groups. Find your county naturalist at mycountyparks.com.