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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Describe the distinguishing characteristics of chordates
  • Identify the derived character of craniates that sets them apart from other chordates
  • Describe the developmental fate of the notochord in vertebrates

Vertebrates are members of the kingdom Animalia and the phylum Chordata ( [link] ). Recall that animals that possess bilateral symmetry can be divided into two groups—protostomes and deuterostomes—based on their patterns of embryonic development. The deuterostomes, whose name translates as “second mouth,” consist of two phyla: Chordata and Echinodermata. Echinoderms are invertebrate marine animals that have pentaradial symmetry and a spiny body covering, a group that includes sea stars, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers. The most conspicuous and familiar members of Chordata are vertebrates, but this phylum also includes two groups of invertebrate chordates.

The deuterostome phylogenetic tree includes Echinodermata and chordata. Chordates possess an notochord and include chephalochordates (lancelets), urochordata (tunicates) craniata, which have a cranium. Craniata includes the Myxini (hagfish) and vertebrata, which possess a vertebral column. Vertebrata includes the Petromyzontida (lampreys) and Gnathostomes, which possess a jaw. Gnathostomes include Actinopterygii (ray finned fishes) and animals with four limbs. Animals with four limbs include Actinistia (coelacanths) , dipnoi (lungfishes) and tetrapods, or animals with four legs. Tetrapods include amphibian (frogs and salamanders) and Amniotic, which possess an amniotic egg. Amniota includes reptilian (turtles, snakes, crocodiles and birds) and mammalia, or animals that produce milk.
All chordates are deuterostomes possessing a notochord.

Characteristics of chordata

Animals in the phylum Chordata    share four key features that appear at some stage during their development: a notochord, a dorsal hollow nerve cord, pharyngeal slits, and a post-anal tail ( [link] ). In some groups, some of these are present only during embryonic development.

The chordates are named for the notochord    , which is a flexible, rod-shaped structure that is found in the embryonic stage of all chordates and in the adult stage of some chordate species. It is located between the digestive tube and the nerve cord, and provides skeletal support through the length of the body. In some chordates, the notochord acts as the primary axial support of the body throughout the animal’s lifetime. In vertebrates, the notochord is present 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 postnatal stage 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.
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.

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.

The dorsal hollow nerve cord    derives from ectoderm that rolls into a hollow tube during development. In chordates, it is located dorsal to the notochord. In contrast, other animal phyla are characterized by solid nerve cords that are located either ventrally or laterally. The nerve cord found in most chordate embryos develops into the brain and spinal cord, which compose the central nervous system.

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. In vertebrate fishes, the pharyngeal slits are modified into gill supports, and in jawed fishes, into jaw supports. In tetrapods, the slits are modified into components of the ear and tonsils. Tetrapod literally means “four-footed,” which refers to the phylogenetic history of various groups that evolved accordingly, even though some now possess fewer than two pairs of walking appendages. Tetrapods include amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

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Source:  OpenStax, Biology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 29, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11448/1.10
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