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Key People:William Bateson...(Show more)Related Topics:reptilevertebratetunicatecephalochordateprotochordate...(Show more)

chordate, any member of the phylum Chordata, which includes the vertebrates (subphylum Vertebrata), the most highly evolved animals, as well as two other subphyla—the tunicates (subphylum Tunicata) and cephalochordates (subphylum Cephalochordata). Some classifications also include the phylum Hemichordata with the chordates.

As the name implies, at some time in the life cycle a chordate possesses a stiff, dorsal supporting rod (the notochord). Also characteristic of the chordates are a tail that extends behind and above the anus, a hollow nerve cord above (or dorsal to) the gut, gill slits opening from the pharynx to the exterior, and an endostyle (a mucus-secreting structure) or its derivative between the gill slits. (A characteristic feature may be present only in the developing embryo and may disappear as the embryo matures into the adult form.) A somewhat similar body plan can be found in the closely related phylum Hemichordata.

General features

Tunicates are small animals, typically one to five centimetres (0.4 to 2.0 inches) long, with a minimum length of about one millimetre (0.04 inch) and a maximum length slightly more than 20 centimetres; colonies may grow to 18 metres (59 feet) in length. Cephalochordates range from one to three centimetres. Vertebrates range in size from tiny fish to the whales, which include the largest animals ever to have existed.

Tunicates are marine animals, either benthic (bottom dwellers) or pelagic (inhabitants of open water), that often form colonies by asexual reproduction. They feed by taking water in through the mouth, using the gill slits as a kind of filter. The feeding apparatus in cephalochordates is similar. They have a well-developed musculature and can swim rapidly by undulating the body. Cephalochordates usually live partially buried in marine sand and gravel.

Vertebrates retain traces of a feeding apparatus like that of tunicates and cephalochordates. The gill slits, however, ceased to function as feeding structures, and then later as respiratory devices, as the vertebrate structure underwent evolutionary changes. Except in some early branches of the vertebrate lineage (i.e., agnathans) a pair of gill arches has become modified so as to form jaws. The fishlike habitus that evidently began with cephalochordates became modified by the development of fins that were later transformed into limbs. With the invasion of the vertebrates into fresh water and then onto land, there was a shift in means of breathing—from gills to lungs. Other modifications, such as an egg that could develop on land, also emancipated the vertebrates from water. Elaboration of the locomotory apparatus and other developments allowed a diversification of structure and function that produced the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

Natural history

Reproduction and life cycle

The chordate life cycle begins with fertilization (the union of sperm and egg). In its primitive form, fertilization occurs externally, in the water. Asexual reproduction takes place in tunicates and in some vertebrates (females of some fish and lizards can reproduce without fertilization). Hermaphroditism (possessing both male and female reproductive organs) is found in tunicates and some fishes, but otherwise the sexes are separate. Larvae (very young forms that differ considerably from the juveniles and adults), when they do occur, differ in structure from the larvae of nonchordates. Internal fertilization, viviparity (giving birth to young that have undergone embryological development), and parental care are common in tunicates and vertebrates.

Ecology and habitats

Chordates are common in all major habitats. Tunicate larvae either seek out a place where they can attach and metamorphose into an adult or develop into adults that float in the open water. Cephalochordates develop in the open water, but as adults they lie partially or entirely buried in sand and gravel. In either case, they are filter feeders with simple behaviour. Vertebrates are much more complex and, in keeping with their more active manner of obtaining food, highly varied in their ecology and habits.


Chordates are capable of locomotion by means of muscular movements at some stage in life. In tunicate larvae, this is accomplished using a tail; in cephalochordates, by undulations of the body; and in vertebrates, by general body movements (as in eels and snakes) and by the action of fins and limbs, which in birds and some mammals are modified into wings.


Chordates enter into a wide variety of symbiotic relationships and are especially noteworthy as hosts for parasites. Family groups and societal relationships, in both a broad and narrow sense, are particularly well developed in vertebrates, due primarily to their elaborate nervous systems. This phenomenon is seen in schools of fish, flocks of birds, and herds of mammals, as well as in the primate associations that suggest the beginnings of human society.

Form and function

General features

Chordates have many distinctive features, suggesting that there has been extensive modification from simple beginnings. The early stages of chordate development show features shared with some invertebrate phyla, especially the mouth that forms separately from the anus, as it does in the phyla Hemichordata, Echinodermata, and Chaetognatha. Likewise, as in these phyla, the coelom, or secondary body cavity around the viscera, develops as outpouchings of the gut. A coelom also is present in some more distantly related phyla, including Annelida, Arthropoda, and Mollusca, but the main organs of the body are arranged differently in these phyla. In chordates the main nerve cord is single and lies above the alimentary tract, while in other phyla it is paired and lies below the gut. Cephalochordates and vertebrates are segmented, as are the annelids and their relatives; however, segmentation in the two groups probably evolved independently. The gill slits and some other features that are common among the hemichordates and the chordates originated before the chordates became a separate group. Hemichordates have no tail above the gut and no mucus-secreting endostyle between the gill slits.

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External features

An ancestral chordate, as suggested by the adult lancelet and the tadpole larva of tunicates, had a distinct front and hind end, an anterior mouth, a posterior tail above an anus, unpaired fins, and gill slits that opened directly to the exterior. A free-swimming tunicate larva metamorphoses into an attached, sessile adult with an atrium that surrounds the gills. The atrium of lancelets probably evolved independently.