This class includes the several species of lancelets, or amphioxi, small, fishlike, filter-feeding animals found in shallow water. A lancelet has a long body, pointed at both ends, with a large notochord that extends almost from tip to tip and is present throughout life. At one end is a mouth surrounded by prominent bristles and leading into a pharynx. The pharynx has gill slits, an endostyle similar to that of a sea squirt, and an atrium surrounding the pharynx. Water enters the mouth and leaves through the gill slits, and food is trapped in the pharynx. The dorsal, tubular nerve cord is slightly enlarged in the anterior region, forming a rudimentary brain. Nerves extend from the nerve chord to other parts of the body. The muscles, as in fishes, are a series of cone-shaped blocks that fit into each other like stacked paper cups. This is the most primitive occurrence of the segmental body wall structure characteristic of lower vertebrates. The colorless blood moves forward through a ventral vessel and back through a dorsal vessel, in the typical chordate pattern. There is no major heart, although many small enlargements of the vessel serve the function of hearts. There are no blood cells and no respiratory pigments. The excretory system, like that of many invertebrates, consists of segmentally arranged nephridia; there is no kidney. The gonads, unlike those of any other chordate, are numerous and segmentally arranged.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.