Backbone Bonanza

coyote on snow
February brings mating season for the coyote.

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?

In the cold temperatures of late fall through early spring, finding reptiles and amphibians will be difficult! So if you head outside to spot animals this time of the year, be prepared with images of what the students were not able to find. This could start a whole other exploration of how different animals survive cold temperatures!

Before heading outdoors to look for animals, make a list of the animals your students predict they might see! Then, head outdoors to look for as many different animals as you can find. Remind students to use their own investigative tools – look with their eyes and listen with their ears. The students could describe how the animal moves (hops, runs, walks, flies, slides, swims) and how the animal is covered (fur, feathers, scales, skin). Ask the students if these animals have have or do not have a backbone. Why or why not?

You could also ask students to classify the vertebrate animal they saw into the group it fits in (fish, amphibian, reptile, bird, 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?

Ask children to name other animals that are vertebrates that you didn’t see on your time outside. 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?

For these activities and more vertebrate craft, snack, and music fun, use Growing Up WILD’s “Backbone Bonanza.”

Extensions: 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