Multiple definitions of the term “animal” exist. Definitions include the scientific definition of kingdom Animalia, the human-centered definition that excludes humans, and other definitions, such as only vertebrates or even only mammals. Due to their education background and interests, upper-level biology students should know the scientific definition of animal, but how do they interpret the term “animal”? In the present study, we examined how these students interpret the term by examining what first comes to mind when asked to name animals, what they think of when asked about the diversity of the animal kingdom, and which organisms, from a list, they would consider to be animals and why. Students first completed surveys (n=59) and then a proportion of those students were interviewed (n=25). Survey and interview transcripts were coded via content analysis to discover emerging themes. Themes were assessed by frequency analysis. On the survey, when first asked to name animals, participants mostly listed vertebrates, primarily mammals, even though those that were interviewed commonly stated that they were thinking about their previous courses or “right answers” when they were creating the list. After participants were asked to consider the diversity of the animal kingdom on the survey, participants began to consider more invertebrates, but still listed more vertebrates, on average, than invertebrates. Later during interviews, most participants recognized that there are many more invertebrates than vertebrates. Finally, during the survey, when participants were asked which organisms were animals, most students interpreted the term “animal” scientifically, although the definition was sometimes limited. For instance, some participants did not realize that all animals are multicellular and some are primarily sessile. This study indicates that not only are there multiple definitions of “animal” but even those that are familiar with the scientific definition interpret the term in different ways.
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