Vertebrate Digestive Systems


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The basic components of the human and rabbit digestive system are the same: each begins at the mouth. Food is swallowed through the esophagus and into the kidney-shaped stomach. The liver is located on top of the stomach, and the pancreas is underneath. Food passes from the stomach to the long, winding small intestine. From there it enters the wide large intestine before passing out the anus. At the junction of the small and large intestine is a pouch called the cecum. The small and large intestines are much longer in rabbits than in humans, and the cecum is much longer as well.
(a) Humans and herbivores, such as the (b) rabbit, have a monogastric digestive system. However, in the rabbit the small intestine and cecum are enlarged to allow more time to digest plant material. The enlarged organ provides more surface area for absorption of nutrients. Rabbits digest their food twice: the first time food passes through the digestive system, it collects in the cecum, and then it passes as soft feces called cecotrophes. The rabbit re-ingests these cecotrophes to further digest them. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

Vertebrates have evolved more complex digestive systems to adapt to their dietary needs. Some animals have a single stomach, while others have multi-chambered stomachs. Birds have developed a digestive system adapted to eating unmasticated food.

Monogastric: Single-chambered Stomach

As the word monogastric suggests, this type of digestive system consists of one (“mono”) stomach chamber (“gastric”). Humans and many animals have a monogastric digestive system. The process of digestion begins with the mouth and the intake of food. The teeth play an important role in masticating (chewing) or physically breaking down food into smaller particles. The enzymes present in saliva also begin to chemically breakdown food. The esophagus is a long tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. Using peristalsis, or wave-like smooth muscle contractions, the muscles of the esophagus push the food towards the stomach. In order to speed up the actions of enzymes in the stomach, the stomach is an extremely acidic environment, with a pH between 1.5 and 2.5. The gastric juices, which include enzymes in the stomach, act on the food particles and continue the process of digestion. Further breakdown of food takes place in the small intestine where enzymes produced by the liver, the small intestine, and the pancreas continue the process of digestion. The nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream across the epithelial cells lining the walls of the small intestines. The waste material travels on to the large intestine where water is absorbed and the drier waste material is compacted into feces; it is stored until it is excreted through the rectum.


Birds face special challenges when it comes to obtaining nutrition from food. They do not have teeth and so their digestive system, must be able to process un-masticated food. Birds have evolved a variety of beak types that reflect the vast variety in their diet, ranging from seeds and insects to fruits and nuts. Because most birds fly, their metabolic rates are high in order to efficiently process food and keep their body weight low. The stomach of birds has two chambers: the proventriculus, where gastric juices are produced to digest the food before it enters the stomach, and the gizzard, where the food is stored, soaked, and mechanically ground. The undigested material forms food pellets that are sometimes regurgitated. Most of the chemical digestion and absorption happens in the intestine and the waste is excreted through the cloaca.

Illustration shows an avian digestive system. Food is swallowed through the esophagus into the crop, which is shaped like an upside-down heart. From the bottom of the crop food enters a tubular proventriculus, which empties into a spherical gizzard. From the gizzard, food enters the small intestine, then the large intestine. Waste exits the body through the cloaca. The liver and pancreas are located between the crop and gizzard. Rather than a single cecum, birds have two caeca at the junction of the small and large intestine.
The avian esophagus has a pouch, called a crop, which stores food. Food passes from the crop to the first of two stomachs, called the proventriculus, which contains digestive juices that breakdown food. From the proventriculus, the food enters the second stomach, called the gizzard, which grinds food. Some birds swallow stones or grit, which are stored in the gizzard, to aid the grinding process. Birds do not have separate openings to excrete urine and feces. Instead, uric acid from the kidneys is secreted into the large intestine and combined with waste from the digestive process. This waste is excreted through an opening called the cloaca. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

Ruminants are mainly herbivores like cows, sheep, and goats, whose entire diet consists of eating large amounts of roughage or fiber. They have evolved digestive systems that help them digest vast amounts of cellulose. An interesting feature of the ruminants’ mouth is that they do not have upper incisor teeth. They use their lower teeth, tongue and lips to tear and chew their food. From the mouth, the food travels to the esophagus and on to the stomach.

To help digest the large amount of plant material, the stomach of the ruminants is a multi-chambered organ. The four compartments of the stomach are called the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum. These chambers contain many microbes that breakdown cellulose and ferment ingested food. The abomasum is the “true” stomach and is the equivalent of the monogastric stomach chamber where gastric juices are secreted. The four-compartment gastric chamber provides larger space and the microbial support necessary to digest plant material in ruminants. The fermentation process produces large amounts of gas in the stomach chamber, which must be eliminated. As in other animals, the small intestine plays an important role in nutrient absorption, and the large intestine helps in the elimination of waste.

Illustration shows the digestive system of a goat. Food passes from the mouth, through the esophagus and into the rumen. It circulates clockwise through the rumen, then moves forward, and down into the small, pouch-shaped reticulum. From the reticulum the food, which is now cud, is regurgitated. The animal chews the cud, and then swallows it into the coiled omasum, which sits between the reticulum and the rumen. After circulating through the omasum the food enters the small intestine, then the large intestine. Waste is excreted through the anus.
Ruminant animals, such as goats and cows, have four stomachs. The first two stomachs, the rumen and the reticulum, contain prokaryotes and protists that are able to digest cellulose fiber. The ruminant regurgitates cud from the reticulum, chews it, and swallows it into a third stomach, the omasum, which removes water. The cud then passes onto the fourth stomach, the abomasum, where it is digested by enzymes produced by the ruminant. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

Some animals, such as camels and alpacas, are pseudo-ruminants. They eat a lot of plant material and roughage. Digesting plant material is not easy because plant cell walls contain the polymeric sugar molecule cellulose. The digestive enzymes of these animals cannot breakdown cellulose, but microorganisms present in the digestive system can. Therefore, the digestive system must be able to handle large amounts of roughage and breakdown the cellulose. Pseudo-ruminants have a three-chamber stomach in the digestive system. However, their cecum—a pouched organ at the beginning of the large intestine containing many microorganisms that are necessary for the digestion of plant materials—is large and is the site where the roughage is fermented and digested. These animals do not have a rumen but have an omasum, abomasum, and reticulum.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

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