Characteristics of Chordata

Animals in the phylum Chordata share five key chacteristics that appear at some stage during their development: a notochord, a dorsal hollow (tubular) nerve cord, pharyngeal gill arches or slits, a post-anal tail, and an endostyle/thyroid gland (Figure). In some groups, some of these key chacteristics are present only during embryonic development.

The chordates are named for the notochord, which is a flexible, rod-shaped mesodermal structure that is found in the embryonic stage of all chordates and in the adult stage of some chordate species. It is strengthened with glycoproteins similar to cartilage and covered with a collagenous sheath. The notocord is located between the digestive tube and the nerve cord, and provides rigid skeletal support as well as a flexible location for attachment of axial muscles. In some chordates, the notochord acts as the primary axial support of the body throughout the animal’s lifetime. However, in vertebrates (craniates), the notochord is present only during embryonic development, at which time it induces the development of the neural tube and serves as a support for the developing embryonic body. The notochord, however, is not found in the postembryonic stages of vertebrates; at this point, it has been replaced by the vertebral column (that is, the spine).

Art Connection

The illustration shows a fish-shaped chordate. A long, thin dorsal hollow nerve cord runs the length of the chordate, along the top. Immediately beneath the nerve cord is a notochord that also runs the length of the organism. Beneath the notochord, pharyngeal slits cut diagonally into tissue toward the front of the organism. A post-anal tail occurs at the rear.
Chordate features. In chordates, four common features appear at some point during development: a notochord, a dorsal hollow nerve cord, pharyngeal slits, and a post-anal tail. The endostyle is embedded in the floor of the pharynx.

Which of the following statements about common features of chordates is true?

  1. The dorsal hollow nerve cord is part of the chordate central nervous system.
  2. In vertebrate fishes, the pharyngeal slits become the gills.
  3. Humans are not chordates because humans do not have a tail.
  4. Vertebrates do not have a notochord at any point in their development; instead, they have a vertebral column.
  5. The endostyle secretes steroid hormones.

The dorsal hollow nerve cord is derived from ectoderm that rolls into a hollow tube during development. In chordates, it is located dorsally to the notochord. In contrast, the nervous system in protostome animal phyla is characterized by solid nerve cords that are located either ventrally and/or laterally to the gut. In vertebrates, the neural tube develops into the brain and spinal cord, which together comprise the central nervous system (CNS). The peripheral nervous system (PNS) refers to the peripheral nerves (including the cranial nerves) lying outside of the brain and spinal cord.

Pharyngeal slits are openings in the pharynx (the region just posterior to the mouth) that extend to the outside environment. In organisms that live in aquatic environments, pharyngeal slits allow for the exit of water that enters the mouth during feeding. Some invertebrate chordates use the pharyngeal slits to filter food out of the water that enters the mouth. The endostyle is a strip of ciliated mucus-producing tissue in the floor of the pharynx. Food particles trapped in the mucus are moved along the endostyle toward the gut. The endostyle also produces substances similar to thyroid hormones and is homologous with the thyroid gland in vertebrates. In vertebrate fishes, the pharyngeal slits are modified into gill supports, and in jawed fishes, into jaw supports. In tetrapods (land vertebrates), the slits are highly modified into components of the ear, and tonsils and thymus glands. In other vertebrates, pharyngeal arches, derived from all three germ layers, give rise to the oral jaw from the first pharyngeal arch, with the second arch becoming the hyoid and jaw support.

The post-anal tail is a posterior elongation of the body, extending beyond the anus. The tail contains skeletal elements and muscles, which provide a source of locomotion in aquatic species, such as fishes. In some terrestrial vertebrates, the tail also helps with balance, courting, and signaling when danger is near. In humans and other great apes, the post-anal tail is reduced to a vestigial coccyx (“tail bone”) that aids in balance during sitting.

Link to Learning

Click for a video discussing the evolution of chordates and five characteristics that they share.

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