What are protists?

Traditionally divided into protozoans (“primitive animals”) and algae (“primitive plants”), protists are a grab-bag of different organisms. Simply put, they comprise all the eukaryotes except for plants, animals, and fungi.

Protists are…

  • Eukaryotes.  These are cells that have a membrane-bound nucleus. This means that bacteria are not protists.
  • Mostly unicellular. Plants, animals, and fungi are the classic examples of multicellular organisms. Most protists are single-celled organisms, but many are not. Examples of multicellular protists include the algae. Some can reach huge sizes, such the giant kelp.
  • Not a “natural” grouping. The standard for biological classification is the monophyletic group – a group that is (i) descended from a common ancestor and (ii) that includes all its descendants. The protists violate the second of these requirements and is hence a paraphyletic group.
  • Fun and fascinating. They swim, they spin, they jump, some even fly! (Okay, I’m stretching the truth a bit. Some have spores which drift through the air.)

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