Vertebral Column

Vertebral Column Definition

The vertebral column, also called the spine, is a series of bones known as vertebrae that are separated by intervertebral discs. The vertebral column is only found in vertebrates, or members of the subphylum Vertebrata, which is part of the phylum Chordata. Members of the Chordata, or the chordates, share 4 derived characters, which no other groups have. They have a dorsal hollow nerve cord, a muscular post-anal tail, an endostyle, and a notochord. The notochord is a strong, flexible rod seen in tunicates and cephalochordates, which are the only chordates without a vertebral column. The endostyle is a glandular groove which secretes mucus to trap food in primitive chordates. In the vertebrates, the notochord has evolved into the spine, while the endostyle has become the thyroid. The thyroid is an endocrine system gland which helps regulate the metabolism of an organism.

The spine is structured to not only provide support and places for muscle attachment, but also to protect the spinal cord of the vertebrates. The vertebral column developed at a series of bony arches that surround the notochord from the top and bottom. The neural arches cover the spinal cord and extend to the hemal arches, which cover the bottom of the notochord and allow for rib attachments. This simple arrangement can be seen in the most primitive vertebrates such as lampreys, and gets slightly more complex through the fishes. As vertebrates evolved to move onto land, the demands for a stronger spine and more muscle attachment along the vertebral column drove the tetrapods to completely replace the notochord with vertebrae.

The modern tetrapod vertebral column consists of a series of interlocking vertebrae that extend from the skull through the tail of an organism. The vertebral column is divided into regions, which form similar functional regions in animals. The cervical vertebrae attach the skull to the rest of the body, and create the structure for the neck of an animal. The thoracic vertebrae often have the most rib attachments, and create a ribcage, which protects the heart and lungs. The lumbar vertebrae connect the top of the organisms to the sacrum, which is a series of fused vertebrae. This region allows for the connection of the pelvic bones and the tail or coccygeal vertebrae.

Regions of a vertebral column

This basic pattern of the spine has been modified throughout the organisms within the Vertebrata. Some extreme examples include the snake, which has lost all appendages and relies solely on a vertebral column and ribcage for support. The ribs of the snake have extended throughout most of the body, which provides additional support. It also allows the snake to expand to several times its starting diameter, enabling snakes to swallow meals bigger than themselves. A snake skeleton can be seen below, with both the spine and ribs intact.

Snake skeleton

On the other hand, many animal have reduced the size of their vertebral column, including humans. As seen in the following picture of a human spine, the tail vertebrae are almost completely absent. As organism that evolved to walk on two legs and usually on the ground, a tail became a hinderance. This can also be seen in our closest wild relatives the great apes. The size increase from tailed monkey and the increased activity sitting in trees and on the ground reduced the need for a tail. Eventually, many apes and humans have lost their tail, or only a small trace of it remains. The only bone left of the tail in humans is the coccyx, and is considered a vestigial structure because it seems to serve no further purpose. In fact, people generally only find out they have a tail when they break their tailbone. While it is painful, the break is certainly not that harmful. A break anywhere else in the spine can cause a separation of the spinal cord, leading to paralysis.

  • Cervical Vertebrae – The “neck” vertebrae, which connect the skull to the rest of the body.
  • Thoracic Vertebrae – Vertebrae that help create the rib cage, by allowing attachment of rib bones.
  • Lumbar Vertebrae – The bones of the lower back, that are often subject to a lot of pressure in bipedal animals such as humans.
  • Intervertebral Discs – The small cartilaginous supports between vertebrae that cushion the movements of the vertebral column.


1. Because of a “vertebrate centered” view that people have, the vertebral column is often seen as the “most evolved support structure”. Why is this not true, evolutionarily?
A. There may be a more evolved feature someday
B. Arthropods are just as successful, and have no vertebral column
C. This is true, all the best animals are vertebrates

Answer to Question #1
B is correct. Evolution is often thought of as a series of stages that led to humans, the greatest of all organisms. This is simply not true. The arthropods have at least a million documented species, compared to the tens of thousands of vertebrates. Their exoskeleton, made of chitin and other molecules, can easily be adapted to suit almost any need. The cephalopods (squid and octopuses), another large group of organisms, survive with almost no skeletal system and yet have exceeded the size and intelligence of most vertebrates. A vertebral column just happens to be one good way to support organisms, and has allowed the vertebrates to expand to a wide variety of habitats.

2. Accounting for the evolution of the vertebrates means finding fossil remains of ancestral vertebrates. As seen in extant vertebrates such as the shark and lamprey, early vertebrates probably had skeletons composed of the must softer cartilage, while bone arose in a later line of fishes. Why is the early history of vertebrates hard to piece together?
A. Very little cartilage gets fossilized
B. Vertebrates were not very successful at first
C. We can’t possibly know what happened by looking at rocks

Answer to Question #2
A is correct. Most of the evidence of the earliest sharks and other vertebrates has been found by remnants of their teeth and bony outer armor. This armor still makes up the scales of extant sharks, but is probably easily distributed and moved around after the animal’s death. The skeleton cartilage of the animal can be easily consumed by scavengers, and would not be easily fossilized. Bone is more likely to fossilize because it is often not digested. This makes it very hard to piece together the early history, but from what scientist have found we do know a lot. Fossilized impressions of the earliest chordates have been found from around 480 million years ago, and a long string of ancestors connects these organisms to us.

3. Dinosaurs were very large creatures. Some of them grew to be over 30 meters in length, or approximately 100 feet! The vertebral columns of these colossal creatures have special air pockets inside. Which of the following is a reasonable hypothesis as to why the air pockets exist?
A. The dinosaurs used the pockets to store food for the winter.
B. The pockets were filled with helium so the dinosaurs could fly.
C. The pockets decreased the weight of the spine, which would be very great.

Answer to Question #3
C is correct. Scientist have indeed found some of these vertebrae and they are heavy! Researchers suggest that an animal of that size could save almost 2,000 pounds by introducing little air pockets to the vertebrae, without compromising their structure. This is just another cool way the vertebral column has been adapted throughout evolutionary history to support the organisms it exists in.
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