Chordatakôrdā´tə, –dä´– [key], phylum of animals having a notochord, or dorsal stiffening rod, as the chief internal skeletal support at some stage of their development. Most chordates are vertebrates (animals with backbones), but the phylum also includes some small marine invertebrate animals. The three features unique to chordates and found in all of them at least during early development are: the notochord, composed of gelatinous tissue and bound by a tough membrane; a tubular nerve cord (or spinal cord), located above the notochord; and gill slits leading into the pharynx, or anterior part of the digestive tract (the throat, in higher vertebrates). In addition, all have blood contained in vessels, and the tunicates and vertebrates have a ventrally located heart. All have a postanal tail, that is, an extension beyond the anus of the notochord or backbone and of the body-wall musculature, containing no internal organs. In vertebrates—animals of the subphylum Vertebrata—a backbone of bone or cartilage segments called vertebrae develops around the notochord; its upward projections partially surround the nerve cord. In many fishes and in early fossil amphibians and reptiles the notochord persists in the adult and is enclosed by the vertebrae; in higher vertebrates, however, it disappears during embryonic development. There are two invertebrate subphyla: the Urochordata, or tunicates, and the Cephalochordata, or lancelets. A third invertebrate group, comprising the acorn worms and their relatives, shows affinities with chordates and has sometimes been considered a chordate subphylum, but is now often classified in a phylum of its own, the Hemichordata.
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