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Cephalochordate – Characteristics, Classification

  • Cephalochordata, also known as lancelets or amphioxus, is a subphylum within the phylum Chordata. These marine animals are characterized by their segmented and elongated body shape, as well as the presence of a notochord that extends from the head to the tail.
  • Cephalochordates exhibit many typical chordate features, but they lack true vertebrate characteristics, which sets them apart as a separate division within the subphylum. They are believed to have diverged from the rest of the chordates around 700 million years ago.
  • Cephalochordates, or lancelets, possess five primary characteristics that are shared by all chordates at some point during their larval or adult stages. These characteristics, known as synapomorphies, include:
  • Notochord: Cephalochordates have a notochord, which is a flexible rod-like structure that provides support and serves as a precursor to the vertebral column found in vertebrates.
  • Dorsal hollow nerve cord: They possess a nerve cord that runs along the dorsal (back) side of their body. This nerve cord is hollow and serves as the central nervous system.
  • Endostyle: Cephalochordates have an endostyle, a glandular structure located in the pharynx. It plays a role in filter-feeding and produces mucus that helps trap food particles.
  • Pharyngeal slits: These organisms have pharyngeal slits, which are openings in the pharynx that function in filter-feeding and gas exchange.
  • Post-anal tail: Cephalochordates possess a tail that extends beyond the anus, known as the post-anal tail. This tail aids in locomotion and propulsion.
  • Cephalochordates are primarily represented by the order Amphioxiformes in modern oceans and are commonly found in warm temperate and tropical seas worldwide. They are typically a few centimeters in length and inhabit coastal environments, often within the sediment of these communities.
  • Although cephalochordates have minimal representation in the fossil record due to their lack of mineralized skeletons, a few fossils have been discovered. These include the Burgess Shale fossils of Pikaia and the Yunnanozoon fossil, both dating back to the Cambrian period. However, the nature of Pikaia has been re-evaluated, suggesting it may not be a true cephalochordate but rather a more stem-ward chordate. Similarly, the Yunnanozoon fossil may be more advanced than cephalochordates and possibly stem-vertebrate.
  • The study of cephalochordates provides insights into the early evolution of chordates and their relationship to other organisms within the animal kingdom. These unique marine animals play a significant role in our understanding of the development and diversification of chordates over millions of years.

Classification of Cephalochordata


Characteristics of Cephalochordate

  • Cephalochordates, also known as lancelets, are small, fish-like translucent marine chordates found in shallow temperate and tropical oceans, typically buried in coarse sand. They possess several distinct characteristics that are shared by all chordates at some point in their life cycle.
  • Firstly, cephalochordates have a notochord, which is a flexible rod-like structure that extends through the entire body, providing support. The notochord is present from the tip of the tail to the region beyond the brain, giving rise to the name Cephalochordata.
  • Secondly, they possess a dorsal hollow nerve cord that runs immediately dorsal to the notochord. This nerve cord opens to the exterior through an anterior neuropore. Although they lack a true brain, braincase, or cranium like vertebrates, there are small eyelike organs present in the nerve cord that detect light, its direction, and changes in intensity.
  • Thirdly, cephalochordates have pharyngeal slits, which are multiple gill slits located in the pharynx. These slits are surrounded by an atrium that provides protection. Respiration takes place through the gills and gill slits.
  • Another characteristic is the presence of an endostyle, which is a glandular groove in the pharynx responsible for producing mucus that traps food particles. The edges of the mouth, covered by an oral hood, have filament-like projections called buccal cirri that filter out large food particles.
  • Cephalochordates also exhibit a post-anal tail, which is an extension of the body beyond the anus. Their body is laterally compressed and tapered at both ends, resembling a lance or needle, hence the common name “lancelets.”
  • The body muscles of lancelets are arranged in V-shaped blocks of striated muscle fibers called myotomes or myomeres. These myotomes are separated by sheets of connective tissue called myosepta or myocommas.
  • The epidermis of cephalochordates is single-layered, and externally, they have a low continuous dorsal and caudal fin. However, they lack paired fins.
  • In terms of reproductive characteristics, cephalochordates have metamerically arranged ductless gonads. They are dioecious, with separate sexes, and fertilization takes place in seawater.
  • Cephalochordates possess a closed blood vascular system that is similar to vertebrates, except for the absence of a specialized heart. The blood is colorless and lacks any respiratory pigment.
  • The excretory organs of cephalochordates are protonephridia with solenocytes, which are derived from the ectoderm. These organs are involved in excretion and osmoregulation.
  • During development, cephalochordates undergo radial cleavage. They have a transparent asymmetrical planktotrophic larva, which resembles the shape of an adult lancelet. This larval stage allows them to disperse and settle in new areas.
  • Overall, cephalochordates possess a unique set of characteristics that distinguish them as a small and primitive group within the animal kingdom. Their simple anatomy and position within the chordate lineage provide valuable insights into the evolutionary history of vertebrates.

Morphology of Cephalochordate

Morphology of Cephalochordate
Morphology of Cephalochordate
  • The morphology of cephalochordates, also known as lancelets, exhibits unique features that provide insights into their evolutionary relationship with other deuterostomes. The general body plan of cephalochordates is considered to be a dorsoventrally flipped version of earlier deuterostomes, indicating a shift in body axis formation between hemichordates and chordates.
  • One notable aspect of their morphology is the correlation between the branchiomeric muscles of vertebrates and the orobranchial muscles within the pharynx of chordates. The branchiomeric muscles in vertebrates encompass the pharyngeal and laryngeal muscles, while the orobranchial muscles in chordates involve the gill and mouth muscles/cavity. Studies have shown that the orobranchial muscles begin development in the early larval stages of cephalochordates and eventually form into the adult hood during metamorphosis.
  • Gene expression studies and neuron pathways indicate homological connections between vertebrates and nonvertebral cephalochordates. The expression of specific genes like Brachyury, which is involved in the development of the notochord, provides evidence of these homological connections. However, over time, the functions of the notochord have diverged between vertebrates and cephalochordates. In cephalochordates, the notochord consists of striated muscles that form a tough, cylindrical rod along the back of the organism. It functions to facilitate body movement within their aquatic environment. In contrast, vertebrates utilize the notochord for body formation during embryonic development.
  • The morphology of cephalochordates showcases the unique adaptations and structural changes that have occurred throughout their evolutionary history. The inverted body axis formation and the correlation between branchiomeric and orobranchial muscles highlight the evolutionary relationships and shared characteristics between cephalochordates and other chordates. By studying their morphology and genetic expressions, researchers gain valuable insights into the development and evolution of deuterostomes.

Feeding of Cephalochordate

  • Feeding in protochordates, including invertebrate chordates such as urochordates, cephalochordates, and hemichordates, is primarily carried out through a specialized mechanism known as the ciliary mode of feeding. These sessile or partially sessile organisms have developed specific structures to strain microorganisms from water and isolate food particles.
  • The pharynx in protochordates serves a dual function of respiration and food collection. A constant flow of water current passes through the pharyngeal cavity and exits through the atriopore. The pharyngeal apparatus and associated structures undergo significant modifications to effectively strain food materials from the incoming water current.
  • Structural elements associated with feeding in protochordates include the pharynx, which extends from the posterior part of the mouth cavity to the beginning of the esophagus. While the pharyngeal apparatus is fundamentally similar across different protochordate forms, minor differences exist based on their degree of sessile habits.
  • Food concentration is a crucial mechanism in protochordates as they feed on microorganisms suspended in dilute seawater. The beating cilia of the gill-bars in the pharynx generate a water current that moves towards the pharynx after entering the mouth. In urochordates, the velar tentacles prevent the entry of large, indigestible particles, while in cephalochordates, buccal cirri assist in this function. The wheel organ in cephalochordates creates a vortex of water, focusing it towards the mouth.
  • Before entering the pharyngeal cavity, the velar tentacles or buccal cirri help sieve off sand grains and other unwanted particles. A substantial amount of water containing food particles enters the pharyngeal cavity. In urochordates and cephalochordates, most of the water exits to the atrium and then directly to the outside through gill slits or their derivatives. In hemichordates, mucus secreted from glands in the mouth cavity entangles food particles, including sand grains, which then pass through the pharynx into the intestinal cavity.
  • The food particles coated in mucus are propelled into the mouth by ciliary action and driven towards the intestine by the beating cilia of ciliated strips. Digestion occurs in the intestine, and undigested materials, such as sand grains, are eliminated. In urochordates and cephalochordates, the endostyle plays a role in entangling food particles with its mucus secretion. Ciliary action then moves the mucous rope forward into the peripharyngeal groove, which leads to the intestine.
  • Filtration and selection of food in protochordates primarily occur through physical means. The presence of numerous gill slits allows for the elimination of excess water from the pharyngeal cavity and facilitates gaseous exchange.
  • The specialized and elaborate pharyngeal apparatus in protochordates demonstrates similarities across different forms, suggesting a common evolutionary origin from ancestral chordates. The degree of pharyngeal specialization corresponds to the sedentary habits of these organisms, reflecting their adaptation to their environment and feeding strategies.
Feeding of Cephalochordate

Systematic Resume

The systematic resume of the subphylum Cephalochordata provides an overview of the classification and distribution of the two genera within the family Brachiostomatidae.

The subphylum Cephalochordata consists of a single family known as Brachiostomatidae, which encompasses two genera: Branchiostoma and Asymmetron. It is worth noting that the genus Epigonichthys is now considered synonymous with Asymmetron, and Amphioxides, previously thought to be a member of the family Amphioxididae, is now recognized as giant larval individuals of the genus Asymmetron.

  1. Genus Branchiostoma [Approx. 16 species] Species within the genus Branchiostoma have gonads located on each side of the body. They are primarily found in tropical and sub-tropical seas. Some examples of species within this genus include:
  • B. lanceolatum: Found in Sri Lanka, India, the Mediterranean, northwestern Europe, and the eastern part of the United States.
  • B. belcheri: Inhabits Sri Lanka, India, Torres Strait, Singapore, and Borneo.
  • B. capense: Native to South Africa.
  • B. indicum: Found in India and Sri Lanka.
  • B. pelagicum: Inhabits India.
  • B. elongatum: Found in Peru.
  • B. nakagawae: Native to Japan.
  • B. caribbaeum: Found in North and South America and the West Indies.
  • B. californiense: Native to California, USA.
  • B. tattersali: Found in India.
  1. Genus Asymmetron [Approx. 7 species] Species within the genus Asymmetron have gonads located exclusively on the right side of the body. They are primarily found in tropical seas. Some examples of species within this genus include:
  • A. cingalense: Native to Sri Lanka.
  • A. cultellum: Inhabits Sri Lanka and Australia.
  • A. lucayanum: Found in the Maldives, Bahamas, and Zanzibar.
  • A. caudatum: Native to the Louisiade Archipelago.
  • A. bassanum: Inhabits Australia.
  • A. maldivense: Found in the Maldives and Zanzibar.
  • A. hectori: Native to New Zealand.

This systematic resume provides an overview of the two genera within the family Brachiostomatidae, their distribution, and the presence or absence of gonads on either side of the body. Understanding the classification and distribution of these cephalochordates contributes to our knowledge of their evolutionary relationships and ecological significance within marine ecosystems.

Reproduction in Cephalochordates

Reproduction in Cephalochordates, or lancelets, involves both sexual and larval development. Here is an overview of their reproductive process:

  1. Sexual Reproduction: Cephalochordates are hermaphroditic, meaning they possess both male and female reproductive organs within the same individual. However, self-fertilization is not common, and cross-fertilization between individuals is more typical.
  2. Gamete Release: During the breeding season, lancelets release eggs and sperm into the surrounding water. The timing of reproduction can vary among species and is often influenced by environmental factors such as temperature and food availability.
  3. External Fertilization: Fertilization occurs externally in the water column. Sperm and eggs are released simultaneously, and the sperm swim towards the eggs to achieve fertilization. This process allows for genetic exchange between different individuals and contributes to genetic diversity within the population.
  4. Larval Development: Once fertilization occurs, the eggs develop into larvae. The larvae of Cephalochordates are known as “leptocephalus” larvae. These larvae are transparent and possess many anatomical features similar to adult lancelets, such as the notochord, nerve cord, and pharynx.
  5. Metamorphosis: The leptocephalus larvae undergo metamorphosis, transforming into the juvenile stage of Cephalochordates. During this process, significant morphological changes occur, including the development of more distinct body features, such as the characteristic shape of adult lancelets.
  6. Settlement: The juvenile Cephalochordates settle onto the seabed, typically in sandy or muddy substrates, where they burrow and establish their sedentary lifestyle.

It’s important to note that specific details of the reproductive process can vary among different species of Cephalochordates. Factors such as habitat, temperature, and ecological conditions can influence the timing and reproductive strategies of individual species. Further research and studies are necessary to gain a comprehensive understanding of the reproductive biology of Cephalochordates.

Ecological significance of Cephalochordates

Cephalochordates, or lancelets, have ecological significance in marine ecosystems. Here are some key points regarding their ecological role:

  • Filter Feeders: Cephalochordates are efficient filter feeders. They play a crucial role in maintaining water quality by removing suspended particles, including microorganisms and organic matter, from the water column. This helps to improve water clarity and prevent excessive nutrient buildup.
  • Nutrient Cycling: As filter feeders, Cephalochordates consume organic particles, including phytoplankton and detritus. Through their feeding activities, they contribute to the cycling of nutrients within marine ecosystems. They extract valuable nutrients from organic matter and release waste products back into the environment, which can be utilized by other organisms.
  • Food Source: Cephalochordates serve as an important food source for various organisms in marine food webs. They are consumed by predatory fish, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. Their abundance and availability can influence the population dynamics and energy flow within the ecosystem.
  • Biodiversity Indicator: The presence and distribution of Cephalochordates can serve as an indicator of the overall health and diversity of marine ecosystems. Their sensitivity to environmental changes, such as pollution and habitat degradation, make them useful bioindicators for assessing ecosystem health.
  • Evolutionary Significance: Cephalochordates are considered living fossils and are believed to resemble the early stages of vertebrate evolution. Studying these organisms provides valuable insights into the evolutionary history and development of chordates and vertebrates.
  • Sediment Stabilization: Cephalochordates inhabit sandy or muddy substrates in coastal areas. Their burrowing activities help to stabilize sediments, reducing erosion and maintaining the integrity of coastal habitats.
  • Trophic Interactions: Cephalochordates interact with other organisms in complex trophic relationships. Their feeding activities can influence the abundance and distribution of planktonic organisms, impacting the structure and dynamics of planktonic communities.

Understanding the ecological significance of Cephalochordates is crucial for conserving their habitats and ensuring the overall health and functioning of marine ecosystems.


What are Cephalochordates?

Cephalochordates, also known as lancelets or amphioxus, are small marine invertebrates belonging to the subphylum Cephalochordata. They are primitive chordates and considered to be the closest living relatives of vertebrates.

Where are Cephalochordates found?

Cephalochordates are found in various marine environments around the world. They typically inhabit sandy or muddy substrates in shallow coastal waters.

What is the size of Cephalochordates?

Cephalochordates are generally small in size, ranging from a few centimeters to about 7 centimeters in length, depending on the species.

How do Cephalochordates feed?

Cephalochordates have a filter-feeding mechanism. They use a specialized oral hood, buccal cirri, and ciliary tracts to sift out food particles from the water and direct them into their mouth for ingestion.

Do Cephalochordates have a backbone?

No, Cephalochordates do not possess a true backbone or vertebral column. However, they do have a notochord, which is a flexible rod-like structure that provides support to their body.

Are Cephalochordates hermaphrodites?

Yes, most Cephalochordates are hermaphrodites, meaning they have both male and female reproductive organs. They are capable of self-fertilization but can also cross-fertilize with other individuals.

How do Cephalochordates reproduce?

Cephalochordates reproduce sexually by releasing eggs and sperm into the water, where fertilization occurs externally. The resulting larvae undergo metamorphosis to develop into adult Cephalochordates.

Are Cephalochordates capable of regeneration?

Yes, Cephalochordates have a remarkable ability to regenerate various body parts. They can regenerate their notochord, nerve cord, and other structures, allowing them to recover from injuries or damages.

What is the ecological significance of Cephalochordates?

Cephalochordates play an important ecological role as filter feeders. They help in maintaining water quality by filtering out microorganisms and organic particles, and they serve as a food source for other organisms in marine ecosystems.

Are Cephalochordates considered threatened or endangered?

Cephalochordates are not currently considered threatened or endangered. However, their populations can be impacted by habitat degradation, pollution, and other environmental factors, highlighting the need for conservation efforts to protect their habitats and ensure their long-term survival.

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