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Finding Phyla

Time Required Short (2-5 days)
Prerequisites None
Material Availability Readily available
Cost Very Low (under $20)
Safety No hazards


Animals come in all shapes and sizes, each a small part of the amazing diversity of life. These differences can also help us to classify animals into different groups. Which group do you belong to? How many different types of animals can you find around your home? Do this experiment to investigate the diversity of animal life around your home.


In this experiment you will find out how many different kinds of animals live around your local environment to measure animal biodiversity in your area.


Sara Agee, Ph.D., Science Buddies

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Science Buddies Staff. "Finding Phyla" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 27 June 2014. Web. 17 Sep. 2014 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Zoo_p015.shtml>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2014, June 27). Finding Phyla. Retrieved September 17, 2014 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Zoo_p015.shtml

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Last edit date: 2014-06-27


From the largest elephant to the tiniest water flea, all animals on the planet have unique characteristics. Scientists use these unique characters to put animals in categories called "phyla" that group animals according to shared characteristics. There are perhaps as many as 35 different phyla, but most phyla are very uncommon. Scientists recognize eight major phyla to describe most common species:

  • Porifera - Commonly called sponges, these animals live underwater and siphon water through a series of pores to trap food particles. You might have one of these in your tub if you purchase a natural sponge for bathing.
  • Cnideria - These include jellyfish, hydra and sea anemones. One famous cniderian is the portuguese man-of-war that delivers a painful sting to unsuspecting beachgoers.
  • Platyhelminthes - The flatworms are found in freshwater, marine, and terrestrial habitats. They are most famous for their regenerative properties.
  • Annelids - The annelids are the segmented worms, including earthworms, marine worms and aquatic worms. Earthworms are used for compost and organic gardening, while marine and aquatic worms are commonly sold as bait.
  • Molluscs - These include snails, slugs, bivalves, squid and octopus. One of my personal favorite phyla to serve for dinner. Some moluscs have shells and others are shell-free, though molluscs are commonly referred to as shellfish.
  • Arthropods - One of the most common phyla includes insects, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, scorpions, shrimp, lobsters, crayfish, pill-bugs, and many more. All arthropods have an external skeleton, called an exoskeleton that sheds as they grow by molting.
  • Echinoderms - These are a favorite phylum when visiting the tidepool, and include starfish, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers. All echinoderms are pentameric, which means they have 5-part symmetry just like a star.
  • Chordates - This phylum is the most well known, even though it is quite small, because it includes all of the vertebrates. It is the phylum we belong to, along with our favorite pets (dogs, cats, rabbits, rats, fish, frogs, salamanders), food (cows, pigs, lamb, chickens, fish, unless you are a vegetarian of course) and zoo animals (zebra, lion, tiger, panda, giraffe, polar bear, etc.).

In this experiment you will do some field work to look for species from each of the major phyla in your local area. How much biodiversity exists in your local environment? How many phyla will you find? Don't worry if you can't find them all, it is harder than you think!

Terms and Concepts

To do this type of experiment you should know what the following terms mean. Have an adult help you search the Internet, or take you to your local library to find out more!

  • phyla
  • biodiversity
  • porifera
  • cnideria
  • platyhelminthes
  • annelids
  • molluscs
  • arthropods
  • echinoderms
  • chordates


Materials and Equipment

  • digital camera to take pictures
  • notebook and pencil to record data
  • magnifying glass to look at small creatures
  • observation site—your home, backyard, park, marina, lake, etc.

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Experimental Procedure

  1. First choose your observation site. It should be a place you like to explore and where you think you might find a diversity of organisms. If you are not going to do the experiment at home, make sure you get a parent to accompany you on your expedition. Good places to choose are:
    • a backyard,
    • community garden,
    • open field,
    • park,
    • pond,
    • lake,
    • wetland,
    • marina,
    • tidepool,
    • stream,
    • wooded area,
    • desert,
    • zoo,
    • pet store, or
    • aquarium.
  2. For your location, choose a good time to go out and observe. Find a nice comfortable spot to sit in where you can see all around you. Be patient, you may need to sit for a while! Try packing a little snack in case you get hungry. You may want to visit your site for a few days to collect more data.
  3. Bring a digital camera to take pictures of the animals you find to help you identify them later. Pictures will also be a nice addition to your poster.
  4. Bring a magnifying glass to look for very small animals in the soil, leaves or under rocks.
  5. Write down some notes about each animal, what it looks like, where you saw it, what you think it is. Don't worry if you can't identify something right away, if you write it down and take a picture you can figure out what phyla it belongs to later.
  6. You will need to record your data by taking notes and drawing pictures of what you see, so prepare some space in a notebook and bring a pencil. A sample data table could look like this:

    Location: My Backyard, Berkeley, CA Date:
    Habitat Animal Drawing Notes Phylum
    the grass





    There were sometiny black ants in a trail making hills of dirt. I saw grasshoppers jumping in the grass. 2 Arthropods
    soil in garden


    snails and slugs



    When I dug into the garden I found big red earthworms. There were also snails and slugs near the cabbage.

    1 Annelid

    2 Molluscs

    pile of dead leaves spiders



    I found three very different looking spiders, I think they are each different species. 3 Arthropods
    Plum trees birds



    There are some birds nesting in the plum trees. 1 Chordate
    Birch trees squirrels



    There are some squirrels jumping in the birch trees. 1 Chordate

  7. Next, you will want to count up the total number of animals belonging to each phylum that you saw:

    Phylum Species - Common Names Total
    Porifera none 0
    Cnideria none 0
    Platyhelminthes none 0
    Annelids Earthworm 1
    Molluscs Snail, Slug 2
    Arthropods Ants, Grasshopper, Spiders (3 species) 5
    Echinoderms none 0
    Chordates Birds, Squirrels, Me 3

  8. Make a bar graph of your data by placing the number of species found on the left side (Y-axis) of the graph and drawing a bar for each phyla up to the number of species you saw.
  9. Which phylum did you find the most animals for? Which phylum was the most difficult to find? Where there some phylum that you couldn't find at all? How do you think that your local environment contributed to the kinds of phylum you could find? Do you think you might find different phyla in different environments? Could you find at least one example for each phylum? How diverse do you think animals are in your region?

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  • In this experiment you have surveyed the distribution of species at one location. For a slightly more difficult project, you could survey two or more locations and compare. How do your local parks compare to each other? Try comparing your yard to the yards of your friends and neighbors. Try comparing business areas to residential areas. If you live near the coast, you could compare the shoreline along a park to a more industrial zone. How do the species compositions change? How can these types of experiments tell you about the composition and health of your local environment?
  • Do you have a pen-pal or relative who lives in a very different environment than you? Perhaps you live in the Arizona desert and she/he lives near the beach in Florida? This is a perfect way to share data and compare two very different environments for species diversity. Have your friend do the same survey, and trade data with each other. Are there some differences in the kinds of animal phyla you each find in your region?
  • Try this experiment at the grocery store! You may laugh, but you would be surprised how many phyla you can find there. The best grocery stores for this experiment are ethnic markets and grocery stores that sell unique foods like: dried invertebrates, fish, shell fish, octopus, snails, and even pickled jellyfish. Search through the fresh foods, frozen foods, dried foods and canned foods for food products made from different animal phyla. In some markets you might even see prepared crickets!
  • Sampling for biodiversity is one way that scientists identify important regions for conservation. Is there an area near you that is protected for conservation? Research the area and find out what unique animals are there, and why the area is being protected. Conduct your own biodiversity survey there to show which types of animals live there. Remember to think about migratory or seasonal animals, too.

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