Physiological Processes of Flatworms


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Illustration shows the digestive, nervous and excretory systems in a flat, worm-like planaria. The digestive system starts at the ventral mouth opening in the middle of the animal, and then extends to the head through the middle of the body, and toward the along the sides of the body. Many lateral branches occur along the digestive system. The nervous system has 2 cerebral ganglia at the eyes in the head, and 2 ventral nerve cords with transverse connections along the length of the body to the tail. The excretory system is arranged in 2 long mesh-like structures down each side of the body.
Planaria, a free-living flatworm. The planarian is a flatworm that has a gastrovascular cavity with one opening that serves as both mouth and anus. The excretory system is made up of flame cells and tubules connected to excretory pores on both sides of the body. The nervous system is composed of two interconnected nerve cords running the length of the body, with cerebral ganglia and eyespots at the anterior end. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

The free-living species of flatworms are predators or scavengers. Parasitic forms feed by absorbing nutrients provided by their hosts. Most flatworms, such as the planarian, have a branching gastrovascular cavity rather than a complete digestive system. In such animals, the “mouth” is also used to expel waste materials from the digestive system, and thus also serves as an anus. (A few species may have a second anal pore or opening.) The gut may be a simple sac or highly branched. Digestion is primarily extracellular, with digested materials taken into the cells of the gut lining by phagocytosis. One parasitic group, the tapeworms (cestodes), lacks a digestive system altogether, and absorb digested food from the host.

Flatworms have an excretory system with a network of tubules attached to flame cells, whose cilia beat to direct waste fluids concentrated in the tubules out of the body through excretory pores. The system is responsible for the regulation of dissolved salts and the excretion of nitrogenous wastes. The nervous system consists of a pair of lateral nerve cords running the length of the body with transverse connections between them. Two large cerebral ganglia—concentrations of nerve cell bodies at the anterior end of the worm—are associated with photosensory and chemosensory cells. There is neither a circulatory nor a respiratory system, with gas and nutrient exchange dependent on diffusion and cell-to-cell junctions. This necessarily limits the thickness of the body in these organisms, constraining them to be “flat” worms. Most flatworm species are monoecious (both male and female reproductive organs are found in the same individual), and fertilization is typically internal. Asexual reproduction by fission is common in some groups.


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