About 2200 species of rotifers have been described. Taxonomically, they are placed in the phylum Rotifera. This phylum is subdivided into three classes, Monogononta, Bdelloidea, and Seisonidea. The largest group is the Monogononta, with about 1500 species, followed by the Bdelloidea, with about 350 species. There are only two known species of Seisonidea. The Acanthocephala, previously considered to be a separate phylum, has been unequivocally demonstrated to be modified rotifers. However, the exact relationship to other members of the phylum has not yet been resolved.
Males in the class Monogononta may be either present or absent depending on the species and environmental conditions. In the absence of males, reproduction is by parthenogenesis and results in clonal offspring that are genetically identical to the parent. Individuals of some species form two distinct types of parthenogenetic eggs; one type develops into a normal parthenogenetic female, while the other occurs in response to a changed environment and develops into a degenerate male that lacks a digestive system, but does have a complete male reproductive system that is used to inseminate females thereby producing fertilized 'resting eggs'. Resting eggs develop into zygotes that are able to survive extreme environmental conditions such as may occur during winter or when the pond dries up. These eggs resume development and produce a new female generation when conditions improve again. The life span of monogonont females varies from a couple of days to about three weeks.
Bdelloid rotifers are unable to produce resting eggs, but many can survive prolonged periods of adverse conditions after desiccation. This facility is termed anhydrobiosis, and organisms with these capabilities are termed anhydrobionts. Under drought conditions, bdelloid rotifers contract into an inert form and lose almost all body water; when rehydrated, however, they resume activity within a few hours. Bdelloids can survive the dry state for prolonged periods, with the longest well-documented dormancy being nine years. While in other anhydrobionts, such as the brine shrimp, this desiccation tolerance is thought to be linked to the production of trehalose, a non-reducing disaccharide (sugar), bdelloids apparently lack the ability to synthesise trehalose.
Bdelloid rotifer genomes contain two or more divergent copies of each gene, suggesting a long term asexual evolutionary history. Four copies of hsp82 are, for example, found. Each is different and found on a different chromosome excluding the possibility of homozygous sexual reproduction.