Superphylum Lophotrochozoa: Flatworms, Rotifers, and Nemerteans

Phylum Nemertea

The Nemertea are colloquially known as ribbon worms or proboscis worms. Most species of phylum Nemertea are marine and predominantly benthic (bottom dwellers), with an estimated 900 known species. However, nemerteans have been recorded in freshwater and very damp terrestrial habitats as well. Most nemerteans are carnivores, feeding on worms, clams, and crustaceans. Some species are scavengers, and some, like Malacobdella grossa, have also evolved commensal relationships with mollusks. Economically important species have at times devastated commercial fishing of clams and crabs. Nemerteans have almost no predators and two species are sold as fish bait.


Nemerteans vary in size from 1 cm to several meters. They show bilateral symmetry and remarkable contractile properties. Because of their contractility, they can change their morphological presentation in response to environmental cues. Animals in phylum Nemertea are soft and unsegmented animals, with a morphology like a flattened tube. (Figure).

The photo shows a worm that resembles intestines, sitting on the muddy ocean floor.
A proboscis worm. The proboscis worm (Parborlasia corrugatus) is a scavenger that combs the sea floor for food. The species is a member of the phylum Nemertea. The specimen shown here was photographed in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. (credit: Henry Kaiser, National Science Foundation)

A unique characteristic of this phylum is the presence of an eversible proboscis enclosed in a pocket called a rhynchocoel (not part of the animal's actual coelom). The proboscis is located dorsal to the gut and serves as a harpoon or tentacle for food capture. In some species it is ornamented with barbs. The rhynchocoel is a fluid-filled cavity that extends from the head to nearly two-thirds of the length of the gut in these animals (Figure). The proboscis may be extended by hydrostatic pressure generated by contraction of muscle of the rhynchocoel and retracted by a retractor muscle attached to the rear wall of the rhynchocoel.

The illustration shows worm-shaped animal with fringe-like sensory papillae at one end. The mouth, which is part way down the body, leads to a stomach and intestine, then empties into an anus at the far end. The cerebral ganglia are located above the mouth. Lateral nerve cords run down either side of the animal from the central ganglia. The proboscis is a long, thin structure inside a cavity called the rhynchocoel.
The anatomy of a Nemertean is shown.

Link to Learning

Watch this video to see a nemertean attack a polychaete with its proboscis.

Digestive System

The nemerteans, which are primarily predators of annelids and crustaceans, have a well-developed digestive system. A mouth opening that is ventral to the rhynchocoel leads into the foregut, followed by the intestine. The intestine is present in the form of diverticular pouches and ends in a rectum that opens via an anus. Gonads are interspersed with the intestinal diverticular pouches and open outward via genital pores.

Nemerteans are sometimes classified as acoels, but because their closed circulatory system is derived from the coelomic cavity of the embryo, they may be regarded as coelomic. Their circulatory system consists of a closed loop formed by a connected pair of lateral blood vessels. Some species may also have a dorsal vessel or cross-connecting vessels in addition to lateral ones. Although the circulatory fluid contains cells, it is often colorless. However, the blood cells of some species bear hemoglobin as well as other yellow or green pigments. The blood vessels are contractile, although there is usually no regular circulatory pathway, and movement of blood is also facilitated by the contraction of muscles in the body wall. The circulation of fluids in the rhychocoel is more or less independent of the blood circulation, although blind branches from the blood vessels into the rhyncocoel wall can mediate exchange of materials between them. A pair of protonephridia, or excretory tubules, is present in these animals to facilitate osmoregulation. Gaseous exchange occurs through the skin.

Nervous System

Nemerteans have a "brain" composed of four ganglia situated at the anterior end, around the rhynchocoel. Paired longitudinal nerve cords emerge from the brain ganglia and extend to the posterior end. Additional nerve cords are found in some species. Interestingly, the brain can contain hemoglobin, which acts as an oxygen reserve. Ocelli or eyespots are present in pairs, in multiples of two in the anterior portion of the body. It is speculated that the eyespots originate from neural tissue and not from the epidermis.


Nemerteans, like flatworms, have excellent powers of regeneration, and asexual reproduction by fragmentation is seen in some species. Most animals in phylum Nemertea are dioecious, although freshwater species may be hermaphroditic. Stem cells that become gametes aggregate within gonads placed along the digestive tract. Eggs and sperm are released into the water, and fertilization occurs externally. Like most lophotrochozoan protostomes, cleavage is spiral, and development is usually direct, although some species have a trochophore-like larva, in which a young worm is constructed from a series of imaginal discs that begin as invaginations from the body surface of the larva.