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What Are Animals?
How many species of animals have been identified to date? The answer is close to two million and they are the most diverse living things on planet Earth. They have struggled to overcome incredible obstacles, adapting their lifestyles in order to survive. They range from animals we all know, big cats and birds of prey to animals we’ve never heard of that live on the seabed.
Animals are usually easily distinguished from other life forms because most of them have the ability to move. This rule works very well for most animals that live on land, but it is not always the case for those that live in water. Here they live in water and in some cases have wings or tentacles that make them look like plants. A reliable way to identify animals is by their basic biological features. Their bodies are made up of many cells and they have nerves and muscles that enable them to respond to the world around them. They get the energy they need by eating.
Animals are very complex and responsive compared to other life forms. Even the simplest animals react quickly to changes around them, moving away from potential danger or reaching for food. Animals that are able to learn from experience and are unique to the animal world are those animals with well-developed nervous systems. The largest animals in the world, baleen whales can live up to 25 meters long and weigh 120 tons. At the other end of the scale are microscopic organisms and sub-microscopic flies and beetles. These animals are so small that their weight is negligible, but they still possess the body systems needed for survival.
Because of their differences in size, animals can live in different ways. Whales have few natural predators and the same goes for elephants, which are the largest land animal. They are able to process food on a very large scale due to their massive body size. However they take a long time to reach maturity, which means they are slow to reproduce. On the other hand, insects are easy prey for many animals and their small size means their bodies are not as energy efficient as larger animals. But because they can reproduce very quickly when conditions are in their favor, their numbers can grow at a very rapid rate.
Almost all of the world’s largest and best-known animals are vertebrates; these are animals that have backbones. They include the fastest animals on land, sea and air and also the most intelligent species in the world (homo sapiens). Vertebrates are all related, with a common ancestry going back millions of years. However, despite the fact that vertebrates lead the animal kingdom in many areas, they make up only a small minority of animal species known today. Animals without backbones, invertebrates, make up the vast majority of animal species.
Invertebrates often have very little in common with each other (unlike vertebrates) except for the lack of a backbone. The giant squid, which is the largest invertebrate, can be over 16 meters long, but is very much an exception. Most invertebrates are very small and live in inaccessible habitats.
Most animals are cold-blooded (ectothermic), meaning that their body temperature is determined by that of their environment. The ability to generate their own heat and maintain a constant internal temperature regardless of outside conditions is unique to warm-blooded (endothermic) birds and mammals. This change in body temperature has some major effects on how animals lead their lives; this is because animal bodies work better when they are warm. Reptiles, amphibians and insects are cold-blooded animals. They can exist quite easily when conditions are warm, but if the temperature drops, the work rate and energy slow down. They are able to absorb some heat by being out in the sunlight, but if the temperature drops below about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, their muscles work so slowly that they have a hard time moving. Mammals and birds are hardly affected by this kind of temperature change. Their internal warmth and good insulation enable them to stay active even when the temperature drops below zero.
In a physical way, vertebrates function as separate units although they may live together in families or in larger groups. In the invertebrate world it is not unusual for animals to bond together permanently, forming groups known as colonies. These colonies often look and behave like single animals. Most are static, but some, especially those that live in the sea, are able to move around. Colonial species include some of the world’s most amazing invertebrates. Pyrosomes, for example, form test-tube-shaped colonies that are large enough for a diver to swim through. Ecologically, however, the most important colonial animals are reef-building corals, which create complex structures that provide shelter for a variety of other animals. In reef-building corals, the members of each colony are usually identical. But in some colonial species, members have different shapes that are designed for different tasks. An example of this is the Portuguese man-of-war that looks like special animals, called polyps, that catch food, digest it or reproduce. They use a giant stuffed polyp as the colony float and hang under it.
Animals get their energy from organic matter or food. They are able to break down food by digesting it and then absorb the substances that are released. These substances enter animal cells where they combine with oxygen to release energy. This process is called cellular respiration and is a controlled form of combustion, with food acting as fuel.
Most animals are either herbivores that eat only plants, omnivores that eat both plants and other animals, and carnivores that eat other animals. There are also scavengers that feed on dead matter. All animals, regardless of their lifestyle, ultimately provide food for other animals. All are connected by food chains that pass food and energy to each other. 90 percent of an animal’s energy is used to function its body, and therefore food chains are rarely more than six links long.
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