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Photo A shows tunicates, which are sponge-like in appearance and have holes along the surface. Illustration B shows the tunicate larval stage, which resembles a tadpole, with a post anal tail at the narrow end. A dorsal hollow nerve cord run along the upper back, and a notochord runs beneath the nerve cord. The digestive tract starts with an oral siphon at the front of the animal connected to a stomach. Above the stomach is the atrial siphon. The pharyngeal slits, which are located in between the stomach and mouth, are connected to an atrial opening at the top of the body. Illustration C shows an adult tunicate, which resembles a tree stump anchored at the bottom. Water enters through an oral siphon at the top of the body and passes through the pharyngeal slits, where it is filtered. Water then exits through another opening at the side of the body. A heart, stomach and gonad are tucked beneath the pharyngeal slit. The outer surface is called a tunic.
Urochordate anatomy. (a) This photograph shows a colony of the tunicate Botrylloides violaceus. (b) The larval stage of the tunicate possesses all of the features characteristic of chordates: a notochord, a dorsal hollow nerve cord, pharyngeal slits, an endostyle, and a post-anal tail. (c) In the adult stage, the notochord, nerve cord, and tail disappear, leaving just the pharyngeal slits and endostyle. (credit: modification of work by Dann Blackwood, USGS)

OpenStax Biology 2e

The 1,600 species of Urochordata are also known as tunicates. The name tunicate derives from the cellulose-like carbohydrate material, called the tunic, which covers the outer body of tunicates. Although tunicates are classified as chordates, the adults do not have a notochord, a dorsal hollow nerve cord, or a post-anal tail, although they do have pharyngeal slits and an endostyle. The “tadpole” larval form, however, possesses all five structures. Most tunicates are hermaphrodites; their larvae hatch from eggs inside the adult tunicate’s body. After hatching, a tunicate larva (possessing all five chordate features) swims for a few days until it finds a suitable surface on which it can attach, usually in a dark or shaded location. It then attaches via the head to the surface and undergoes metamorphosis into the adult form, at which point the notochord, nerve cord, and tail disappear, leaving the pharyngeal gill slits and the endostyle as the two remaining features of its chordate morphology.

Adult tunicates may be either solitary or colonial forms, and some species may reproduce by budding. Most tunicates live a sessile existence on the ocean floor and are suspension feeders. However, chains of thaliacean tunicates called salps can swim actively while feeding, propelling themselves as they move water through the pharyngeal slits. The primary foods of tunicates are plankton and detritus. Seawater enters the tunicate’s body through its incurrent siphon. Suspended material is filtered out of this water by a mucous net produced by the endostyle and is passed into the intestine via the action of cilia. The anus empties into the excurrent siphon, which expels wastes and water. Tunicates are found in shallow ocean waters around the world.

The image displays a group of salps near a coral reef.  This appears as a long, globular chain, with interior sections shaped like snails.
Salps. These colonial tunicates feed on phytoplankton. Salps are sequential hermaphrodites, with younger female colonies fertilized by older male colonies. (credit: Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife via Wikimedia Commons)


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e

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