AskDefine | Define chaetognath

Dictionary Definition

chaetognath n : any worm of the Chaetognatha; transparent marine worm with horizontal lateral and caudal fins and a row of movable curved spines at each side of the mouth [syn: arrowworm]

Extensive Definition

Chaetognatha is a phylum of predatory marine worms that are a major component of plankton worldwide. About 20% of the known species are benthic and can attach to algae or rocks. They are found in all marine waters from surface tropical waters and shallow tide pools to the deep sea and polar regions. Most chaetognaths are transparent and are torpedo shaped. Some deep-sea species are orange. They range in size from 2 mm to 12 cm. The common term for the phylum is Arrow Worms. There are more than 120 modern species assigned to over 20 genera. Despite the limited diversity of species, the number of individuals is staggering.
Chaetognaths are transparent or translucent and are covered by a cuticle. They have fins and a pair of hooked, chitinous, grasping spines on each side of their heads that are used in hunting. The spines are covered with a hood when swimming. They have a distinct head, trunk and tail. All species are hermaphroditic, carrying both eggs and sperm. Some species are known to use the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin to subdue prey. They have some developmental similarities to nematodes. Although they have a mouth with one or two rows of tiny teeth, compound eyes, and a nervous system, they have no respiratory, circulatory, or excremental systems. Materials are moved about the body cavity by cilia. Waste materials are simply excreted through the skin and anus. Chaetognaths swim in short bursts using a dorso-ventral undulating body motion, where their tail fin assists with propulsion and the body fins for stabilization and steering. At least one species of chaetognath, Caecosagitta macrocephala, has bioluminescent organs on its lateral fins.


Chaetognaths are traditionally classed as deuterostomes by embryologists. Lynn Margulis and K. V. Schwartz place chaetognaths in the deuterostomes in their Five Kingdom classification. Molecular phylogenists, however, consider them to be protostomes. Thomas Cavalier-Smith places them in the protostomes in his Six Kingdom classification. The similarities between chaetognaths and nematodes mentioned above may support the protostome thesis - in fact, chaetognaths are sometimes regarded as a basal ecdysozoan. Chaetognatha appears close to the base of the protostome tree in most studies of their molecular phylogeny. This may explain their deuterostome embryonic characters. If chaetognaths branched off from the protostomes before they evolved their distinctive protostome embryonic characters, they may have retained deuterostome characters inherited from early bilaterian ancestors. Thus chaetognaths may be a useful model for the ancestral bilaterian.

Fossil record

Due to their soft bodies, chaetognaths fossilize poorly. Even so, several fossil chaetognath species have been described. Chaetognaths appear to have originated in the Cambrian Period. Complete body fossils have been formally described from the Lower Cambrian Maotianshan shales of Yunnan, China (Eognathacantha ercainella Chen & Huang and Protosagitta spinosa Hu) and the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale of British Columbia (Oesia disjuncta Walcott). A more recent chaetognath, Paucijaculum samamithion Schram, has been described from the Mazon Creek biota from the Pennsylvanian of Illinois. Chaetognaths were thought possibly to be related to some of the animals grouped with the conodonts. The conodonts themselves, however, are thought to be related to the vertebrates. It is now thought that protoconodont elements (e.g., Protohertzina anabarica Missarzhevsky, 1973), are probably grasping spines of chaetognaths rather than teeth of conodonts. Previously chaetognaths in the Early Cambrian were only suspected from these protoconodont elements, but the more recent discoveries of body fossils have confirmed their presence then.


chaetognath in Catalan: Quetògnat
chaetognath in Czech: Ploutvenky
chaetognath in German: Pfeilwürmer
chaetognath in Estonian: Harjaslõugsed
chaetognath in Spanish: Chaetognatha
chaetognath in French: Chaetognatha
chaetognath in Korean: 모악동물
chaetognath in Italian: Chaetognatha
chaetognath in Hungarian: Nyílférgek
chaetognath in Japanese: 毛顎動物
chaetognath in Norwegian: Pilormer
chaetognath in Occitan (post 1500): Chaetognatha
chaetognath in Polish: Szczecioszczękie
chaetognath in Portuguese: Chaetognatha
chaetognath in Russian: Щетинкочелюстные
chaetognath in Slovak: Štetinatoústky
chaetognath in Serbian: Стакласти црви
chaetognath in Finnish: Nuolimadot
chaetognath in Swedish: Pilmaskar
chaetognath in Turkish: Kıllıçeneliler
chaetognath in Chinese: 毛颚动物门
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