Superphylum Lophotrochozoa: Molluscs and Annelids

Phylum Annelida

Phylum Annelida comprises the true, segmented worms. These animals are found in marine, terrestrial, and freshwater habitats, but the presence of water or humidity is a critical factor for their survival in terrestrial habitats. The annelids are often called “segmented worms” due to their key characteristic of metamerism, or true segmentation. Approximately 16,500 species have been described in phylum Annelida, which includes polychaete worms (marine annelids with multiple appendages), and oligochaetes (earthworms and leeches). Some animals in this phylum show parasitic and commensal symbioses with other species in their habitat.


Annelids display bilateral symmetry and are worm-like in overall morphology. The name of the phylum is derived from the Latin word annullus, which means a small ring, an apt description of the ring-like segmentation of the body. Annelids have a body plan with metameric segmentation, in which several internal and external morphological features are repeated in each body segment. Metamerism allows animals to become bigger by adding “compartments,” while making their movement more efficient. The overall body can be divided into head, body, and pygidium (or tail). During development, the segments behind the head arise sequentially from a growth region anterior to the pygidium, a pattern called teloblastic growth. In the Oligochaetes, the clitellum is a reproductive structure that generates mucus to aid sperm transfer and also produces a “cocoon,” within which fertilization occurs; it appears as a permanent, fused band located on the anterior third of the animal (Figure).

The clitellum is a swollen, smooth section of the earthworm.
The clitellum of an earthworm. The clitellum, seen here as a protruding segment with different coloration than the rest of the body, is a structure that aids in oligochaete reproduction. (credit: Rob Hille)


The epidermis is protected by a collagenous, external cuticle, which is much thinner than the cuticle found in the ecdysozoans and does not require periodic shedding for growth. Circular as well as longitudinal muscles are located interior to the epidermis. Chitinous bristles called setae (or chaetae) are anchored in the epidermis, each with its own muscle. In the polychaetes, the setae are borne on paired appendages called parapodia.

Most annelids have a well-developed and complete digestive system. Feeding mechanisms vary widely across the phylum. Some polychaetes are filter-feeders that use feather-like appendages to collect small organisms. Others have tentacles, jaws, or an eversible pharynx to capture prey. Earthworms collect small organisms from soil as they burrow through it, and most leeches are blood-feeders armed with teeth or a muscular proboscis. In earthworms, the digestive tract includes a mouth, muscular pharynx, esophagus, crop, and muscular gizzard. The gizzard leads to the intestine, which ends in an anal opening in the terminal segment. A cross-sectional view of a body segment of an earthworm is shown in Figure; each segment is limited by a membranous septum that divides the coelomic cavity into a series of compartments.

Most annelids possess a closed circulatory system of dorsal and ventral blood vessels that run parallel to the alimentary canal as well as capillaries that service individual tissues. In addition, the dorsal and ventral vessels are connected by transverse loops in every segment. Some polychaetes and leeches have an open system in which the major blood vessels open into a hemocoel. In many species, the blood contains hemoglobin, but not contained in cells. Annelids lack a well-developed respiratory system, and gas exchange occurs across the moist body surface. In the polychaetes, the parapodia are highly vascular and serve as respiratory structures. Excretion is facilitated by a pair of metanephridia (a type of primitive “kidney” that consists of a convoluted tubule and an open, ciliated funnel) that is present in every segment toward the ventral side. Annelids show well-developed nervous systems with a ring of fused ganglia present around the pharynx. The nerve cord is ventral in position and bears enlarged nodes or ganglia in each segment.

The illustration shows a cross-section of an annelid. The body is divided into segmented compartments. A U-shaped intestine runs through the middle of the compartments, and two ventral nerve cords run along the bottom. In each segment, the nerve cords are connected to each other. A dorsal blood vessel sits on top of the intestine, and a ventral blood vessel rests beneath it. Other vessels connect the dorsal and ventral vessels together. The nephridium is connected to the barrier separating the compartments, and consists of a long coil connected to a trumpet-like bell.
Segmental anatomy of an earthworm. This schematic drawing shows the basic anatomy of annelids in a cross-sectional view.

Annelids may be either monoecious with permanent gonads (as in earthworms and leeches) or dioecious with temporary or seasonal gonads (as in polychaetes). However, cross-fertilization is preferred even in hermaphroditic animals. Earthworms may show simultaneous mutual fertilization when they are aligned for copulation. Some leeches change their sex over their reproductive lifetimes. In most polychaetes, fertilization is external and development includes a trochophore larva, which then metamorphoizes to the adult form. In oligochaetes, fertilization is typically internal and the fertilized eggs develop in a cocoon produced by the clitellum; development is direct. Polychaetes are excellent regenerators and some even reproduce asexually by budding or fragmentation.

Link to Learning

This combination video and animation provides a close-up look at annelid anatomy.

Classification of Phylum Annelida

Phylum Annelida contains the class Polychaeta (the polychaetes) and the class Oligochaeta (the earthworms, leeches, and their relatives). The earthworms and the leeches form a monophyletic clade within the polychaetes, which are therefore paraphyletic as a group.

There are more than 22,000 different species of annelids, and more than half of these are marine polychaetes ("many bristles"). In the polychaetes, bristles are arranged in clusters on their parapodia—fleshy, flat, paired appendages that protrude from each segment. Many polychaetes use their parapodia to crawl along the sea floor, but others are adapted for swimming or floating. Some are sessile, living in tubes. Some polychaetes live near hydrothermal vents. These deepwater tubeworms have no digestive tract, but have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria living in their bodies.

Earthworms are the most abundant members of the class Oligochaeta ("few bristles"), distinguished by the presence of a permanent clitellum as well as the small number of reduced chaetae on each segment. (Recall that oligochaetes do not have parapodia.) The oligochaete subclass Hirudinea, includes leeches such as the medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis, which is effective at increasing blood circulation and breaking up blood clots, and thus can be used to treat some circulatory disorders and cardiovascular diseases. Their use goes back thousands of years. These animals produce a seasonal clitellum, unlike the permanent clitellum of other oligochaetes. A significant difference between leeches and other annelids is the lack of setae and the development of suckers at the anterior and posterior ends, which are used to attach to the host animal. Additionally, in leeches, the segmentation of the body wall may not correspond to the internal segmentation of the coelomic cavity. This adaptation possibly helps the leeches to elongate when they ingest copious quantities of blood from host vertebrates, a condition in which they are said to be “engorged.” The subclass Brachiobdella includes tiny leechlike worms that attach themselves to the gills or body surface of crayfish.

Part a shows an earthworm, and part b shows a large leech trying to latch onto a person’s hand. Part c shows a worm on that is anchored to the ocean floor. Featherlike appendages extend from the tube-like body.
Annelid groups. The (a) earthworm, (b) leech, and (c) featherduster are all annelids. The earthworm and leech are oligochaetes, while the featherduster worm is a tube-dwelling filter-feeding polychaete. (credit a: modification of work by S. Shepherd; credit b: modification of work by “Sarah G...”/Flickr; credit c: modification of work by Chris Gotschalk, NOAA)
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