Flatworms (Platyhelminthes) are a group of bilaterally symmetrical, acoelomate, soft-bodied invertebrate animals found in marine, freshwater as well as moist terrestrial environments.
Flatworm species include:
With more than 20,000 species currently identified, the phylum Platyhelminthes makes up one of the largest phyla after chordates, mollusks, and arthropods. On the other hand, they make up the largest phylum among acoelomates.
Kingdom: Animalia - Flatworms fall under the animal kingdom that is characterized by multicellular eukaryotic organisms. In some classifications, they are also classified under the basal animal clade Eumetazoa since they are metazoans that fall under the animal kingdom (Kingdom Animalia).
Bilateria- Flatworms also fall under Bilateria in Eumetazoa. This classification includes animals with bilateral symmetry consisting of a head and tail (as well as a dorsal part and belly).
Protostomia- As members of this clade, flatworms comprise three germ layers. As such, they are also often referred to as protostomes.
Apart from these higher classifications, the phylum is further divided into the following classes:
Class Turbellaria is composed of about 3,000 species of organisms spread across at least 10 orders. While a majority of these species live in marine environments, there are many others that can be found in freshwater environments as well as tropical terrestrial and moist temperate environments. As such, they require at least moist conditions to survive.
Depending on the species, members of class Turbellaria either exist as free-living organisms or parasites. For instance, members of the order Temnocephalida exist as either entirely commensals or parasites.
One of the best examples of a free-living (opportunistic) species in this order is the Temnosewellia minor. In their environment, emnosewellia minor use their strong suckers to attach onto crayfish (at the tail section) from where they feed on various smaller organisms like protozoa wherever the fish goes. As such, they do not cause harm to the crayfish and only depend on the crayfish for transport and stirring up environments with food sources.
Ichthyophaga subcutanea, on the other hand, has been shown to be a true parasite of such marine fish as Hexagrammus decagrammus. In such hosts, the parasite lives below the skin where it obtains its nutrition.
Common orders belonging to class Turbellaria include:
Some of the other orders include:
This is one of the largest groups of flatworms whose members as almost exclusively parasites of aquatic vertebrates (ectoparasites).
Though they are grouped in a different class to trematodes, class Monogenea has been shown to have many similar traits to trematodes. However, they can be easily differentiated from trematodes and cestodes by the fact that they possess a posterior organ known as a haptor.
Monogeneans vary in size and shape. For instance, whereas larger species may appear flattened and shaped like a leaf (leaf-shaped) the smaller ones are more cylindrical. Rather than an oral sucker, monogeneans have a large posterior adhesive disk known as opisthaptor that makes it possible to attach to the host. This structure consists of hooks that enhance attachment.
Using these structures, monogeneans are well able to attach to such animal parts as fins, gills as well as the oral cavity from where they can feed off the outer epidermal layer of the host.
The head of monogeneans at the anterior region may contain eyespots with pigments. This region of the body also has an oval shaped pharynx that is poorly developed.
Some of the other characteristics of monogeneans include:
Class Cestoda is composed of over 4,000 species commonly known as tapeworms. Typically, cestodes are internal worms (endoparasites) that require more than one host for their complex life cycles.
Compared to the other types of flatworms, cestodes are characterized by their long flat bodies that can grow up to 18 meters long consisting of many reproductive units (proglottid).
Class Cestoda is further divided into two other subclasses that include:
Subclass Cestodaria - Members of this subclass (about 15 species) are unsegmented and can be found in the intestine (or body cavity in some cases) of primitive fish. Cestodaria species are characterized by a single set of the reproductive organ (either male or female), suckers, they lack a digestive system as well as parenchymal muscle cells.
This subclass consists of the following orders; Amphilinidea, Caryophyllidea, and Gyrocotylidea.
Subclass Eucestoda - The majority of cestodes belong to this subclass and are referred to as true tapeworms. The body of these organisms is divided into scolex (containing suckers and/or hooks), a neck as well as a strobila that consists of a series of units known as proglottids. For members of this subclass, the proglottids play an important role in reproduction.
Subclass Eucestoda is composed of a number of orders that include: Tetraphyllidea, Lecanicephalidea, Diphyllidea, Trypanorhyncha, and Nippotaeniidea among a few others. With the subclass consisting of over 3,000 species, species in the different orders are differentiated by the number of suckers, presence or absence of sex ducts as well as a structure of the scolex among other features.
A complex life cycle - The body of true tapeworms consists of many segments known as proglottids. Each of the proglottids contains both a male and female reproductive structures (as hermaphrodites) that are capable of reproducing independently.
Given that a single tapeworm can produce as many as a thousand proglottids; this allows tapeworms to continue thriving. For instance, a single proglottid is capable of producing thousands of eggs, their lifecycle can continue in another host when the eggs are ingested.
Here, the host that ingests the eggs is known as the intermediate host given that it is in this particular host that the eggs hatch to produce a larvae (coracidium). The larvae, however, continues to develop in the second host (definitive host) and mature in the adult stage.
They lack a digestive system - Compared to the two other classes of flatworms, tapeworms lack a digestive system. Instead, the surface of their bodies are covered by small microvillus-like projections similar to those found in the small intestine of many vertebrates.
Through these structures, tapeworms effectively absorb nutrients through their outer covering (tegument). For this reason, a majority of tapeworms can be found in the small intestine of many of their hosts where they can easily obtain nutrition.
They have well-developed muscle.
Modified cilia on their surface are used as sensory endings.
The nervous system is made up of a pair of lateral nerve cords.
Examples of cestodes species include:
Commonly known as flukes, members of class Trematoda are all parasitic in nature. Currently, about 20,000 species of class Trematoda have been identified.
These are spread across two subclasses of Trematoda including:
Subclass Aspidogastrea consists of about 80 species that exist as parasites of both marine and freshwater mollusks and vertebrates such as fishes.
Some of the other characteristics of Aspidogastreans include:
Compared to subclass Aspidogastrea, subclass Digenea is a significantly large group consisting of well over 18,000 nominal species spread across approximately 150 families. They have a more complex life cycle that requires one or more intermediate hosts (mollusk) as well as a definitive host (vertebrates).
Species of subclass Digenea can be found in virtually all vertebrate classes and cause a range of animal and human diseases (schistosomiasis etc).
Some of the primary characteristics of this subclass include:
Subclass Digenea is divided into several orders that include:
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