Annelida is a group commonly referred to as segmented worms, and they are found worldwide from the deepest marine sediments to the soils in our city parks and yards. Through most of the 20th century Annelida was split into three major groups; Polychaeta, Oligochaeta (earthworms etc.) and Hirudinea (leeches). Earthworms and leeches are the familiar annelids for most people, but polychaetes comprise the bulk of the diversity of Annelida and are found in nearly every marine habitat, from intertidal algal mats downwards. There are even pelagic polychaetes that swim or drift, preying on other plankton, and a few groups occurring in fresh water and moist terrestrial surroundings. Around 9000 species of polychaetes are currently recognized with several thousand more names in synonymy, and the overall systematics of the group remains unstable (Rouse and Pleijel, 2001).
It is now recognized that Oligochaeta and Hirudinea, comprised of several thousand species, form a clade and should be referred to either as Oligochaeta (Siddall et al., 2001) or Clitellata (Martin, 2001). Moreover, it is possible that this group may well belong inside Polychaeta, thus making Polychaeta synonymous with Annelida (McHugh, 1997; Westheide, 1997; Westheide et al., 1999). Echiura (spoon worms), at one time regarded as an annelid group (Sedgwick, 1898), has been excluded from Annelida for many years (Newby, 1940). Evidence now suggests they are in fact annelids (Hessling and Westheide, 2002; McHugh, 1997), though their placement within the group is unresolved. The former phyla Pogonophora and Vestimentifera have also recently become regarded as a single, clearly annelid, group (Bartolomaeus, 1995; Nielsen, 1995; Rouse and Fauchald, 1995), and are now known by the original name, Siboglinidae (see Rouse and Fauchald , 1997 and McHugh 1997). Undoubted annelid fossils, such as Canadia, are known from the Burgess Shale deposits.
Until relatively recently the most commonly used system to divide polychaetes was as 'Errantia' and 'Sedentaria'. This was essentially a system of convenience with no real intention of depicting evolutionary relationships. This classification was supplanted in the 1960s and 1970s by ones which split polychaetes into as many as 22 orders with no explicit linkage between them (Fauchald and Rouse, 1997). A recent cladistic analysis of Annelida and other groups has resulted in a new classification of polychaetes (Rouse and Fauchald, 1997), with the group split into two main clades Scolecida and Palpata. Scolecida is a small group of less than 1000 named species, and these worms are all burrowers of one form or another, with bodies reminiscent of earthworms. Palpata comprises the vast majority of polychaetes and is divided into Aciculata and Canalipalpata. Aciculata contains about half of the polychaete species and largely encompasses the old taxonomic group Errantia. Representatives of this lineage are characterized by having internal supporting chaetae, or aciculae, in the parapodia. It includes major groups such as Phyllodocida and Eunicida, which tend to be mobile forms with well developed eyes and parapodia for rapid locomotion. Canalipalpata, a group with more than 5000 named species, is distinguished by having long grooved palp structures that are used for feeding. Canalipalpata is divided into Sabellida, Spionida and Terebellida. Most of these groups’ members live in tubes and use their palps to feed in various ways.
The annelids (Phylum Annelida) are also called the segmented worms due to their segmented bodies. This group includes the most familiar of all invertebrate worms. Earthworms, freshwater worms, leeches, and marine worms are all annelids.
This group is also called "bristle worms" because most annelids have tiny chitinous bristles called setae. The setae help terrestrial annelids grip their surroundings, and they aid aquatic forms with swimming.
Annelids are worldwide in distribution, and they are found in marine environments, fresh water, and terrestrial soil. Some annelids are predators, others are vegetarians, and some leeches are bloodsuckers.
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"Dozens of earthworm species from all over the world can secrete a glowing slime, thought to startle predators. This particular worm, Diplocardia longa, is found in sandy soils in southern Georgia in the U.S. and can stretch to over half a meter in length…It turns out that chloragocytes—the cells in earthworms that produce the bioluminescent ooze are part of a system that sequesters toxins in the earthworm's body, much like a liver." (Hadhazy 2009)
Rudie NG; Mulkerrin MG; Wampler JE. 1981. Earthworm bioluminescence: characterization of high specific activity Diplocardia longa luciferase and the reaction it catalyzes. Biochemistry. 20(2): 344–350.
"The skin of a worm is a cylinder comprised of fibers wound in a cross-helical form around and along the worm's body. By contracting the muscles in the body wall and increasing its internal pressure, the worm is able to change shape, with the fibers in the skin allowing the worm to go from short and fat to long and thin." (Courtesy of the Biomimicry Guild) Learn more about this functional adaptation.
Annelids are a phylum including earthworms, leeches, polychaete worms, and some other worm groups(3). Annelids are also called segmented worms because a defining feature they all share is a body most of which is divided into segments, each of which contains parts of the basic body systems (2). This segmentation, or metamerism, allows annelids to move more efficiently and provides other benefits as well(2). Inside all of these segments, in a cavity known as the coelom, is fluid that presses against the annelid’s body, keeping the body firm so that it can bend and extend without breaking (1,2,3). Although segmented worms may appear simple, the organs inside them are highly developed; various annelids have organs that can sense touch, balance, and chemicals in their environment, and some even have eyes with lenses (2,3). While all annelids share some important physical characteristics, they live all over the world in a huge range of habitats on land and in the water (both freshwater and marine), with varying diets, feeding habits, reproductive methods, and life cycles (2,3).
1. Light, Sol Felty. Intertidal Invertebrates of the Central California Coast. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.
2. Myers, Phil. “Phylum Annelida: Segmented Worms.” Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. 2001. 16 Aug. 2011. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Annelida.html
3. Rouse, Greg W., Fredrik Pleijel, and Damhnait McHugh. “Annelida: Segmented Worms: Bristleworms, Ragworms, Earthworms, Leeches and their Allies.” Tree of Life Web Project. 2002. 16 Aug. 2011. http://tolweb.org/Annelida/2486
The monophyly of Annelida is not well supported and only two morphological features are worthy of discussion; segmentation and chaetae. Nuchal organs represent another possible apomorphy and are discussed in the section on sensory structures (see plesiomorphies and other features).
1. Metamerism (segmentation)
Annelids have three body regions (Fig. 2). The majority of the body is comprised of repeated units called segments. The original French use of the name Annélides (Lamarck, 1802) comes from the Latin word ‘anellus’, meaning a little ring, in reference to the presence of the ring-like segments. Each segment is, in principle, limited by septa dividing it from neighbouring segments, and has a fluid-filled cavity within referred to as a coelom. Structures such as the excretory, locomotory and respiratory organs are generally repeated in each segment. Segments are formed sequentially in annelids and are established during development from growth zones located at the posterior end of the body; so the youngest segment in the body of an annelid is always the most posterior. The only parts of the annelid body that are not segmental are the head and a terminal post-segmental region called the pygidium. The head is comprised of two units, the prostomium and the peristomium. The postsegmental pygidium includes the zone from which new segments are proliferated during growth. The proposed homology of segmentation seen in annelids with that seen in Arthropoda has been used to unite the two as Articulata, a grouping that dates back to Cuvier (1817). The homology of this segmentation has been questioned recently, with arthropods now viewed by many as closer to taxa such as Nematoda (Aguinaldo et al., 1997). This suggests that the form of segmentation seen in annelids may in fact represent an apomorphy. With regards to the supposedly unsegmented Echiura, their reinstatement within Annelida (see McHugh 1997) suggests that their apparently unsegmented body in fact represents a series of fused segments (see Hessling and Westheide 2002).
A distinctive feature of annelids are structures called chaetae (Fig. 3). Chaetae (also called setae) are bundles of chitinous, thin-walled cylinders held together by sclerotinized protein. They are produced by a microvillar border of certain invaginated epidermal cells and so can be defined as cuticular structures that develop within epidermal follicles. Chaetae show a huge amount of variation, from long thin filaments (capillary chaetae) to stout multi-pronged hooks (Fig. 3). Apart from annelids, chaetae are found in Echiura and Brachiopoda. There is now good evidence (Hessling and Westheide, 2002; McHugh, 1997) that the former group falls within Annelida. The position of Brachiopoda is controversial (Lüter, 2000b; Lüter and Bartolomaeus, 1997; Stechmann and Schlegel, 1999) and the homology of their chaetae with those of annelids is unresolved (Lüter, 2000a). There is a distinct possibility therefore that chaetae represent an apomorphy for Annelida.
Based on studies in: USA: Massachusetts, Cape Ann (Marine, Sublittoral) Uganda (Lake or pond)
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
R. W. Dexter, The marine communities of a tidal inlet at Cape Ann, Massachusetts: a study in bio-ecology, Ecol. Monogr. 17:263-294, from p. 272 (1947).
M. J. Burgis, I. G. Dunn, G. G. Ganf, L. M. McGowan and A. B. Viner, Lake George, Uganda: Studies on a tropical freshwater ecosystem. In: Productivity Problems of Freshwaters, Z. Kajak and A. Hillbricht-Ilkowska, Eds. (Polish Scientific, Warsaw, 1972), p
Myers, P., R. Espinosa, C. S. Parr, T. Jones, G. S. Hammond, and T. A. Dewey. 2006. The Animal Diversity Web (online). Accessed February 16, 2011 at http://animaldiversity.org. http://www.animaldiversity.org