The Vertebrata, or vertebrates, is a very diverse group, ranging from lampreys to humans. It includes all craniates, except hagfishes, and are characterized chiefly by a vertebral column, hence their name. The majority of the extant vertebrates are the jawed vertebrates, or gnathostomes, but lampreys are jawless vertebrates. However, in Late Silurian or Early Devonian times, about 420 to 400 million years ago, the situation was reverse, and the majority of the vertebrate species were jawless fishes (the "ostracoderms", presumably more closely related to the gnathostomes than to lampreys). The decline of the jawless vertebrates and the subsequent rise of the gnathostomes took place about 380 million years ago.

Extant vertebrates comprise two clades: the Hyperoartia, or lampreys, and the Gnathostomata, or jawed vertebrates. In addition, there is a number of taxa of fossil jawless vertebrates which were formerly referred to as the "ostracoderms" ("shell-skinned") because most of them possess an extensive, bony endo- and exoskeleton. The "ostracoderms" lived from the Early ordovician (about 480 million years ago) to the Late Devonian (about 370 million years ago). The relationships of the various groups of "ostracoderms" has been the subject of considerable debate since the mid-nineteenth Century, and the theory of relationship proposed here is far from definitive, yet the best supported by the currently available data. The "ostracoderms" are represented by five major groups, four of which are almost certainly clades: the Heterostraci, Osteostraci, Galeaspida, Anaspida, and Thelodonti (the monophyly of the latter being debated). In addition, there are minor groups which only include a few species: the Arandaspida, Astraspida, Eriptychiida, and Pituriaspida. The Arandaspida, Astraspida, Eriptychiida, and Heterostraci are regarded as forming a clade, the Pteraspidomorphi. Some monospecific genera, Jamoytius, Endeiolepis, and Euphanerops, formerly referred to the Anaspida, are now removed from that clade and may be more closely related to lampreys. A large but still poorly known group, the Euconodonta, has recently been included in the Craniata, and possibly the Vertebrata. It is currently referred to as 'conodonts', but the only forms that can reliably be regarded as craniates belong to a

subgroup of conodonts known as euconodonts.