Characteristics

All animals with a backbone are vertebrates, and they make up one of the subphyla in the phylum Chordata, whose members are called chordates. Chordates are so named because they have a notochord, a stiff but flexible rod of cells that runs the length of the body near the dorsal surface. Figure 38-10 illustrates the noto-chord. The stiffness of the notochord provides a resistance against which the body muscles can exert force when they contract. The flexibility of the notochord allows the body to bend from side to side as well as up and down.

Some kinds of chordates retain the notochord throughout their life. In most vertebrates, however, the notochord is present in embryos but becomes greatly reduced when the vertebral column, or backbone, develops. In adult mammals, the notochord persists only as small patches of tissue between the bones of the vertebral column.

Recall that in addition to having a notochord, all chordates have the following three characteristics during some stage of their life: (1) a dorsal nerve cord, (2) pharyngeal pouches, and (3) a postanal tail. These characteristics are also illustrated in Figure 38-10. Unlike the ventral nerve cords of invertebrates such as annelids and arthropods, the dorsal nerve cord of a chordate is a hollow tube.

Notochord

Muscles

All chordates have a notochord, a dorsal nerve cord, pharyngeal pouches, and a postanal tail during at least some stage of their life.

Dorsal nerve cord

Notochord

Muscles

In vertebrates, the anterior end of the nerve cord enlarges during development to form the brain, and the posterior end forms the spinal cord. The brain receives information from a variety of complex sensory organs, many of which are concentrated at the anterior end of the body.

The pharyngeal pouches are outpockets in the pharynx, the portion of the digestive tract between the mouth and the esophagus. In aquatic chordates, the pharyngeal pouches have slits and evolved first into filter-feeding structures and later into gill chambers. In terrestrial chordates, the pouches evolved into a variety of structures, including the jaws and inner ear.

The notochord extends into the postanal tail, and muscles in the tail can cause it to bend. The postanal tail provides much of the propulsion in many aquatic chordates. Invertebrates in other phyla lack this form of propulsion, and the anus, if present, is located at the end of the body.

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