Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

Circulatory System


The circulatory system consists of blood, a heart, and blood vessels.

Functions of the Circulatory System

The circulatory system functions with other body systems to provide the following:

Transport of materials:

  • Gasses transported: Oxygen is transported from the lungs to the cells. CO2 (a waste) is transported from the cells to the lungs.
  • Transport other nutrients to cells - For example, glucose, a simple sugar used to produce ATP, is transported throughout the body by the circulatory system. Immediately after digestion, glucose is transported to the liver. The liver maintains a constant level of glucose in the blood.
  • Transport other wastes from cells - For example, ammonia is produced as a result of protein digestion. It is transported to the liver where it is converted to less toxic urea. Urea is then transported to the kidneys for excretion in the urine.
  • Transport hormones - Numerous hormones that help maintain constant internal conditions are transported by the circulatory system.

Contains cells that fight infection

Helps stabilize the pH and ionic concentration of the body fluids.

It helps maintain body temperature by transporting heat. This is particularly important in homeothermic animals such as birds and mammals.

Large Animals

Small animals may not need a circulatory system because the interior cells are close to the surface. Oxygen absorbed from the environment by surface cells can diffuse to interior cells. Wastes produced by interior cells move a short distance to the surface and diffuse into the environment. 

Most invertebrates and all vertebrates have interior cells that are too far from the body surface to exchange substances efficiently. They require a circulatory system.

A circulatory system is not needed in small, flat, or porous animals because they have a high surface-to-volume ratio and can obtain sufficient absorption directly through their skin.

Gas Exchange and Transport in Invertebrates

Only coelomate animals have a circulatory system.

The choanocytes of sponges use cilia to move water through pores in the sides so that water brings each of the cells all of the nutrients necessary for survival.

Cnidarians have a gastrovascular cavity that provides inner cells with exposure to water. They are only two cell layers thick, so that all cells are exposed to the water for nutrient and gas exchange.

Flatworms also have a gastrovascular cavity to provide for internal cells. Their small size and flattened shape gives them a higher surface-to-volume ratio for better absorption from the environment.

Fluid contained within the body cavity of pseudocoelomate animals functions to transport nutrients and wastes but these animals do not have a heart or blood vessels.

Echinoderms have gills on the surface of their skin for gas exchange. Nutrients are distributed by coelomic fluid. Amoeboid cells within the coelomic cavity transport some wastes. The water vascular system functions to operate the tube feet.

Open Circulatory System

In an open circulatory system, blood is pumped from the heart through blood vessels but then it leaves the blood vessels and enters body cavities, where the organs are bathed in blood, or sinuses (spaces) within the organs.

Blood flows slowly in an open circulatory system because there is no blood pressure after the blood leaves the blood vessels. The animal must move its muscles to move the blood within the spaces.

In a closed system, blood remains within blood vessels, pressure is high, and blood is therefore pumped faster.

Arthropods and most mollusks (except cephalopods: nautilus, squid, octopus) have an open circulatory system.


The coelom of insects has been reduced to a cavity that carries blood (hemolymph).  It is called a hemocoel..

dorsal heart \(\rightarrow\) aorta \(\rightarrow\) hemocoel

Ostia (openings in the heart) close when heart contracts. When heart relaxes, the ostia open and blood is sucked into openings.

The blood of insects is colorless because it lacks respiratory pigments; it functions to carry nutrients, not gases.

Animals with open circulatory systems generally have limited activity due to limitations in the oxygen delivery capability of the system. Insects are able to be active because gas exchange is via a tracheal system.

Closed Circulatory System

In a closed circulatory system, blood is not free in a cavity; it is contained within blood vessels. Valves prevent the backflow of blood within the blood vessels.

This type of circulatory system is found in vertebrates and several invertebrates including annelids, squids and octopuses.

The blood of animals with a closed circulatory system usually contains cells and plasma (liquid). The blood cells of vertebrates contain hemoglobin.


Earthworms have a dorsal and ventral blood vessel that runs the length of the animal. Branches from these vessels are found in each segment.

There are five vessels that pump blood from the dorsal vessel to the ventral vessel.

Earthworms have red blood (due to the pigment hemoglobin) but they have no cells. Hemoglobin binds with oxygen to carry it to the tissues.

Evolution of Vertebrate Circulatory System

Chambers of the Heart

Vertebrate hearts contain muscular chambers called atria (sing. atrium) and ventricles. Contraction of the chamber forces blood out. Blood flows in one direction due to valves that prevent backflow.

The atrium functions to receive blood that is returning to the heart.  When it contracts, blood is pumped into the ventricle.

The ventricle is the main pumping chamber of the heart.  When it contracts, blood is pumped away from the heart to the body, lungs, or gills.

Circulatory System of Fish

In the diagrams that follow, arrows represent the direction of blood flow in blood vessels (arteries and veins). Blood pressure is represented by the thickness of the arrows. Thick arrows indicate high blood pressure. Blood that is rich in oxygen is represented by red arrows. Blue arrows represent blood that is low in oxygen after it has passed through the body tissues.

Fish have a two-chambered heart with one atrium (A) and one ventricle (V).

The gills contain many capillaries for gas exchange, so the blood pressure is low after going through the gills. Low-pressure blood from the gills then goes directly to the body, which also has a large number of capillaries. The activity level of fish is limited due to the low rate of blood flow to the body.

Circulatory System of Amphibians

Amphibians have a 3-chambered heart with two atria and one ventricle.

Blood from the lungs (pulmonary flow) goes to the left atrium. Blood from the body (systemic flow) goes to the right atrium.

Both atria empty into the ventricle where some mixing occurs.

The advantage of this system is that there is high pressure in vessels that lead to both the lungs and body.

Circulatory System of Some Reptiles

Inmost reptiles, the ventricle is partially divided. This reduces mixing of oxygenated and unoxygenated blood in the ventricle. The partial division of the ventricle is represented by a dashed line below.

Circulatory System of Crocodilians, Birds, and Mammals

Birds and mammals (also crocodilians) have a four-chambered heart which acts as two separate pumps. After passing through the body, blood is pumped under high pressure to the lungs. Upon returning from the lungs, it is pumped under high pressure to the body. The high rate of oxygen-rich blood flow through the body enables birds and mammals to maintain high activity levels.

Blood Vessels

heart \(\rightarrow\) arteries \(\rightarrow\) arterioles \(\rightarrow\) capillaries \(\rightarrow\) venules \(\rightarrow\) veins \(\rightarrow\) heart

Blood vessels are formed on the inside by a layer of endothelium, a single layer of squamous epithelial cells.

The endothelium of arteries and veins is surrounded by smooth muscle, allowing their diameter to be regulated. Arteries and veins also have an outer layer of connective tissue that provides strength and elasticity. This layer is thicker in arteries than in veins because arteries contain more pressure.


Arteries carry blood away from heart.


Smooth muscle surrounding the arteries and arterioles controls the distribution of blood. For example, blood vessels dilate when O2 levels decrease or wastes accumulate. This allows more blood into an area to bring oxygen and nutrients or remove wastes.


The smallest blood vessels are capillaries. They are typically less than 1 mm long. The diameter is so small that red blood cells travel single file.

The total length of capillaries on one person is over 50,000 miles. This would go around the earth twice.

Not all of the capillary beds are open at one time because all of them would hold 1.4 times the total blood volume of the all the blood in the body. Vasodilation and vasoconstriction refer to the dilation and constriction of blood vessels. The diameter is controlled by neural and endocrine controls. Sphincter muscles control the flow of blood to the capillaries.

The total cross-sectional area of the capillaries is greater than that of the arteries or veins, so the rate of blood flow (velocity) is lowest in the capillaries. Blood pressure is highest in the arteries but is considerably reduced as it flows through the capillaries. It is lowest in the veins.

Interstitial fluid

The exchange of substances between blood and the body cells occurs in the capillaries. Capillaries are specialized for exchange of substances with the interstitial fluid. No cell in the body is more than 100 micrometers from a capillary. This is the thickness of four sheets of paper.

Interstitial fluid surrounds and bathes the cells. This fluid is continually being replaced by fresh fluid from blood in the circulatory system.

Body cells take up nutrients from the interstitial fluid and empty wastes into it.

By maintaining a constant pH and ionic concentration of the blood, the pH and ionic concentration of the interstitial fluid is also stabilized.

Although fluid leaves and returns to the capillaries, blood cells and large proteins remain in the capillaries.

At the arterial end of capillaries (the left side of the diagram below), blood pressure forces fluid out and into the surrounding tissues. As blood moves through the capillary, the blood pressure decreases so that near the veinule end, less is leaking into the surrounding tissues.

As blood flows through the capillary and fluid moves out, the blood that remains behind becomes more concentrated. The osmotic pressure in the capillary is therefore greater near the veinule end and results in an increase in the amount of fluid moving into the capillary near this end.

The arrows on the diagram above represent the movement of blood into and out of the capillary. Long and thick arrows are used to represent a large amount of fluid movement. The total amount of movement out of the capillary is approximately equal to the amount of movement into the capillary. Notice that more blood tends to leave the capillary near the arteriole end and more tends to enter it near the veinule end.

The lymphatic capillaries collect excess fluid in the tissues.


Capillaries merge to form venules and venules merge into veins.

Venules can constrict due to the contraction of smooth muscle. When they are constricted there is more fluid loss in the capillaries due to increased pressure.


The diameter of veins is greater than that of arteries.

The blood pressure in the veins is low so valves in veins help prevent backflow. 

The contraction of skeletal muscle during normal body movements squeezes the veins and assists with moving blood back to the heart.

The vena cava returns blood to the right atrium of the heart from the body. In the right atrium, the blood pressure is close to 0.

Varicose veins develop when the valves weaken.

Veins act as blood reservoirs because they contain 50% to 60% of the blood volume.

Smooth muscle in the walls of veins can expand or contract to adjust the flow volume returning to the heart and make more blood available when needed.

Portal Veins

Portal veins connect one capillary bed with another.

The hepatic portal vein connects capillary beds in the digestive tract with capillary beds in the liver.

Human Circulation

Chambers of the heart

The heart is actually two separate pumps. The left side pumps blood to the body (systemic circulation) and the right side pumps blood to the lungs (pulmonary circulation). Each side has an atrium and a ventricle. See the diagram below

The atria function to receive blood when they are relaxed and to fill the ventricles when they contract.

The ventricles function to pump blood to the body (left ventricle) or to the lungs (right ventricle).


Valves allow blood to flow through in one direction but not the other. They prevent backflow.

Atrioventricular valves (diagram above) are located between the atria and the ventricles. They are held in place by fibers called chordae tendinae. The left atrioventricular valve is often called the bicuspid or mitral valve; the right one is also called the tricuspid valve.

The semilunar valves (diagram above) are between the ventricles and the attached vessels.

The heartbeat sound is produced by the valves closing.

Below: The structure of the mammalian heart is summarized using a model.

    Click on the images to view an enlargement.

Cardiac cycle

As the atria relax and fill, the ventricles are also relaxed.

When the atria contract, the pressure forces the atrioventricular valves open and blood in the atria is pumped into the ventricles.

The ventricles then contract, forcing the atrioventricular valves closed.  The pulmonary artery carries blood from the right ventricle to the lungs. The aorta carries blood from the left ventricle to the body.

Electrical stimulation

The heart does not require outside stimulation.

The sinoatrial (SA) node is a bit of nervous tissue that serves as the cardiac pacemaker. Stimulation from this node causes both of the atria to contract at the same time because the muscle tissue conducts the stimulation rapidly.

The contraction doesn't spread to the ventricles because the atria and ventricles are separated by connective tissue.

As a wave of stimulation (depolarization) spreads across the atria resulting in their contraction, another bit of nervous tissue called the atrioventricular (AV) node also becomes stimulated (depolarized). It conducts the action potential slowly to the ventricles. The slow speed is due to the small diameter of the neurons within the node.

The slow speed of conduction within the AV node ensures that the ventricles contract after the atria contract..

The bundle of His then transmits impulse rapidly from the AV node to the ventricles.

Nervous Control

Details of nervous control of the cardiac cycle are in the chapter on the nervous system.

Coronary circulation

Coronary arteries supply the heart muscles with blood.

They have a very small diameter and may become blocked, producing a heart attack.

Blood Pressure

The units of measurement are millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). For example, 120 mm Hg/80 mm Hg is considered to be normal blood pressure.

The top number is referred to as the systolic pressure; the bottom number is the diastolic pressure.

Hypertension - High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is associated with cardiovascular disease.

In males under 45 years, pressures greater than 130/90 are considered to be high. In males over 45 years, pressures greater than 140 /95 are high.


Human blood has two parts, liquid (plasma) and cells.


Plasma contains dissolved gasses, nutrients, wastes, salts, and proteins.

Salts and proteins buffer the pH so that it is approximately 7.4 and they maintain osmotic pressure.

Plasma proteins also assist in transporting large organic molecules. For example, lipoproteins carry cholesterol and albumin carries bilirubin (produced from the breakdown of hemoglobin when old blood cells are destroyed).


Red Blood Cells (Erythrocytes)

Red blood cells are biconcave disks filled with hemoglobin.

Red blood cells are continuously produced in the red marrow of the skull, ribs, vertebrae, and ends of the long bones. The nucleus of the cell disappears as it matures.

Mammalian red blood cells loose their nucleus as they mature. As a consequence, human red blood cells have a life span of approximately 120 days. Other vertebrates have nucleated red blood cells. Phagocytic cells in the liver and spleen remove old cells.

Anemia occurs when there are insufficient numbers of red blood cells or the cells lack sufficient hemoglobin.

White Blood Cells

White blood cells are covered in the chapter on the immune system.

Blood Clotting

Damaged tissue produces spasms of the smooth muscle and these spasms stop the blood flow for a few minutes.

Platelets are fragments of larger cells produced in the bone marrow that assist in forming a clot. They adhere to exposed collagen in damaged blood vessels. This causes some to rupture and release substances that attract more platelets. Platelets and damaged tissue release substances that cause a blood protein called fibrinogen to be converted to fibrin. Fibrin forms a mesh-like structure that traps blood cells and platelets. The resulting plug that forms seals the leak.

Details of Blood Clot Formation

When tissue damage occurs, muscles begin to spasm, which temporarily reduces blood flow to the area. Blood flow is also reduced when platelets in the blood adhere to the damaged tissue. Blood clotting is initiated when platelets and damaged tissue secrete prothrombin activator.

The platelets and damaged tissue release a clotting factor called prothrombin activator.

Prothrombin activator and calcium ions catalyze the conversion of prothrombin to thrombin which then catalyzes the conversion of fibrinogen to fibrin threads.

Fibrin threads are sticky and trap more platelets, further sealing the leak.

Review Activity

Be able to list the following structures in the order that blood would pass through them. Begin with the vena cava.

Blood Vessels


pulmonary artery

pulmonary vein

vena cava

Chambers of the Heart

left atrium

left ventricle

right atrium

right ventricle


left atrioventricular valve (mitral valve)

left semilunar valve

right atrioventricular valve

right semilunar valve

Organs receiving the blood