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4.6D: Phylum Nemertea

  • Page ID
    • Boundless
    • Boundless

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    Nemertea, or ribbon worms, are distinguished by their proboscis, used for capturing prey and enclosed in a cavity called a rhynchocoel.

    Learning Objectives
    • Identify the key features of the Phylum Nemertea

    Key Points

    • The Nemertini are mostly bottom-dwelling marine organisms, although some are found in freshwater and terrestrial habitats.
    • Most nemerteans are carnivores, some are scavengers, and others have evolved relationships with some mollusks that are benefit the Nemertean but do not harm the mollusk.
    • Nemerteans vary greatly in size and are bilaterally symmetrical; they are unsegmented and resemble a flat tube which can change morphological presentation in response to environmental cues.
    • Nemertini have a simple nervous system comprised of a ring of four nerve masses called “ganglia” at the anterior end between the mouth and the foregut from which paired longitudinal nerve cords emerge and extend to the posterior end.
    • Nemertini are mostly sexually dimorphic, fertilizing eggs externally by releasing both eggs and sperm into the water; a larva may develop inside the resulting young worm and devour its tissues before metamorphosing into the adult.

    Key Terms

    • protonephridia: an invertebrate organ which occurs in pairs and removes metabolic wastes from an animal’s body
    • rhynchocoel: a cavity which mostly runs above the midline and ends a little short of the rear of the body of a nemertean and extends or retracts the proboscis
    • proboscis: an elongated tube from the head or connected to the mouth, of an animal

    Phylum Nemertea

    The Nemertea are colloquially known as ribbon worms. Most species of phylum Nemertea are marine (predominantly benthic or bottom dwellers) with an estimated 900 species known. However, nemertini have been recorded in freshwater and terrestrial habitats as well. Most nemerteans are carnivores, feeding on worms, clams, and crustaceans. Some species are scavengers, while other nemertini species, such as Malacobdella grossa, have also evolved commensalistic relationships with some mollusks. Interestingly, nemerteans have almost no predators, two species are sold as fish bait, and some species have devastated commercial fishing of clams and crabs.


    Ribbon worms vary in size from 1 cm to several meters. They show bilateral symmetry and remarkable contractile properties. Because of their contractility, they can change their morphological presentation in response to environmental cues. Animals in phylum Nemertea also show a flattened morphology: they are flat from front to back, like a flattened tube. In addition, nemertea are soft, unsegmented animals.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Morphology of Nemertea: A terrestrial Geonemertes, a Nemertean, displaying the flat, ribbon-like body of the organism that is unsegmented.

    A unique characteristic of this phylum is the presence of a proboscis enclosed in a rhynchocoel. The proboscis serves to capture food and may be ornamented with barbs in some species. The rhynchocoel is a fluid-filled cavity that extends from the head to nearly two-thirds of the length of the gut in these animals. The proboscis may be extended or retracted by the retractor muscle attached to the wall of the rhynchocoel.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Internal structures of the Nemertini: This image shows the internal structures of a basic nemertean, including the proboscis and the rhynchocoel: 1: Proboscis 2: Rhynchocoel 3: Dorsal commissure of brain 4: Rhynchodeum 5: Proboscis pore 6: Ventral commissure of brain 7: Mouth 8: Foregut 9: Stomach


    The nemertini show a very well-developed digestive system. A mouth opening that is ventral to the rhynchocoel leads into the foregut, followed by the intestine. The intestine is present in the form of diverticular pouches which ends in a rectum that opens via an anus. Gonads are interspersed with the intestinal diverticular pouches, opening outwards via genital pores. A circulatory system consists of a closed loop of a pair of lateral blood vessels. The circulatory system is derived from the coelomic cavity of the embryo. Some animals may also have cross-connecting vessels in addition to lateral ones. Although these are called blood vessels, since they are of coelomic origin, the circulatory fluid is colorless. Some species bear hemoglobin as well as yellow or green pigments. The blood vessels are connected to the rhynchocoel. The flow of fluid in these vessels is facilitated by the contraction of muscles in the body wall. A pair of protonephridia, or primitive kidneys, is present in these animals to facilitate osmoregulation. Gaseous exchange occurs through the skin in the nemertini.

    Nervous System

    Nemertini have a ganglion or “brain” situated at the anterior end between the mouth and the foregut, surrounding the digestive system as well as the rhynchocoel. A ring of four nerve masses called “ganglia” comprises the brain in these animals. Paired longitudinal nerve cords emerge from the brain ganglia, extending to the posterior end. Ocelli or eyespots are present in pairs, in multiples of two in the anterior portion of the body. It is speculated that the eyespots originate from neural tissue and not from the epidermis.


    Animals in phylum Nemertea show sexual dimorphism, although freshwater species may be hermaphroditic. Eggs and sperm are released into the water; fertilization occurs externally. The zygote develops into a special kind of nemertean larvae called a planuliform larva. In some nemertine species, another larva specific to the nemertinis, a pilidium, may develop inside the young worm from a series of imaginal discs. This larval form, characteristically shaped like a deerstalker cap, devours tissues from the young worm for survival before metamorphosing into the adult-like morphology.

    This page titled 4.6D: Phylum Nemertea is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Boundless.

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