Last updated
Temporal range: Cambrian (or earlier?) – present
"A variety of marine worms": plate from Das Meer by M. J. Schleiden (1804–1881)
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Annelida
Class: Polychaeta
Grube, 1850
Groups included
Cladistically included but traditionally excluded taxa

Chaetopteridae [1]

Polychaeta ( /ˌpɒlɪˈktə/ ) is a paraphyletic [1] class of generally marine annelid worms, commonly called bristle worms or polychaetes ( /ˈpɒlɪˌkts/ ). Each body segment has a pair of fleshy protrusions called parapodia that bear many bristles, called chaetae, which are made of chitin. More than 10,000 species are described in this class. Common representatives include the lugworm (Arenicola marina) and the sandworm or clam worm Alitta.


Polychaetes as a class are robust and widespread, with species that live in the coldest ocean temperatures of the abyssal plain, to forms which tolerate the extremely high temperatures near hydrothermal vents. Polychaetes occur throughout the Earth's oceans at all depths, from forms that live as plankton near the surface, to a 2- to 3-cm specimen (still unclassified) observed by the robot ocean probe Nereus at the bottom of the Challenger Deep, the deepest known spot in the Earth's oceans. [2] Only 168 species (less than 2% of all polychaetes) are known from fresh waters. [3]


Polychaetes are segmented worms, generally less than 10 cm (4 in) in length, although ranging at the extremes from 1 mm (0.04 in) to 3 m (10 ft), in Eunice aphroditois . They can sometimes be brightly coloured, and may be iridescent or even luminescent. Each segment bears a pair of paddle-like and highly vascularized parapodia, which are used for movement and, in many species, act as the worm's primary respiratory surfaces. Bundles of bristles, called chaetae, project from the parapodia. [4]

However, polychaetes vary widely from this generalised pattern, and can display a range of different body forms. The most generalised polychaetes are those that crawl along the bottom, but others have adapted to many different ecological niches, including burrowing, swimming, pelagic life, tube-dwelling or boring, commensalism, and parasitism, requiring various modifications to their body structures.

The head, or prostomium, is relatively well developed, compared with other annelids. It projects forward over the mouth, which therefore lies on the animal's underside. The head normally includes two to four pair of eyes, although some species are blind. These are typically fairly simple structures, capable of distinguishing only light and dark, although some species have large eyes with lenses that may be capable of more sophisticated vision, [4] including the Alciopids' complex eyes which rival cephalopod and vertebrate eyes. [5]

The head also includes a pair of antennae, tentacle-like palps, and a pair of pits lined with cilia, known as "nuchal organs". These latter appear to be chemoreceptors, and help the worm to seek out food. [4]

Internal anatomy and physiology

General anatomy of a polychaete Polychaeta anatomy en.svg
General anatomy of a polychaete
Phyllodoce rosea Phyllodoce rosea.jpg
Phyllodoce rosea

The outer surface of the body wall consists of a simple columnar epithelium covered by a thin cuticle. Underneath this, in order, are a thin layer of connective tissue, a layer of circular muscle, a layer of longitudinal muscle, and a peritoneum surrounding the body cavity. Additional oblique muscles move the parapodia. In most species the body cavity is divided into separate compartments by sheets of peritoneum between each segment, but in some species it's more continuous.

The mouth of polychaetes is located on the peristomium, the segment behind the prostomium, and varies in form depending on their diets, since the group includes predators, herbivores, filter feeders, scavengers, and parasites. In general, however, they possess a pair of jaws and a pharynx that can be rapidly everted, allowing the worms to grab food and pull it into their mouths. In some species, the pharynx is modified into a lengthy proboscis. The digestive tract is a simple tube, usually with a stomach part way along.

The smallest species, and those adapted to burrowing, lack gills, breathing only through their body surfaces. Most other species have external gills, often associated with the parapodia.

A simple but well-developed circulatory system is usually present. The two main blood vessels furnish smaller vessels to supply the parapodia and the gut. Blood flows forward in the dorsal vessel, above the gut, and returns down the body in the ventral vessel, beneath the gut. The blood vessels themselves are contractile, helping to push the blood along, so most species have no need of a heart. In a few cases, however, muscular pumps analogous to a heart are found in various parts of the system. Conversely, some species have little or no circulatory system at all, transporting oxygen in the coelomic fluid that fills their body cavities. [4]

The blood may be colourless, or have any of three different respiratory pigments. The most common of these is haemoglobin, but some groups have haemerythrin or the green-coloured chlorocruorin, instead.

The nervous system consists of a single or double ventral nerve cord running the length of the body, with ganglia and a series of small nerves in each segment. The brain is relatively large, compared with that of other annelids, and lies in the upper part of the head. An endocrine gland is attached to the ventral posterior surface of the brain, and appears to be involved in reproductive activity. In addition to the sensory organs on the head, photosensitive eye spots, statocysts, and numerous additional sensory nerve endings, most likely in involved with the sense of touch, also occur on the body. [4]

Polychaetes have a varying number of protonephridia or metanephridia for excreting waste, which in some cases can be relatively complex in structure. The body also contains greenish "chloragogen" tissue, similar to that found in oligochaetes, which appears to function in metabolism, in a similar fashion to that of the vertebrate liver. [4]

The cuticle is constructed from cross-linked fibres of collagen and may be 200 nm to 13 mm thick. Their jaws are formed from sclerotised collagen, and their setae from sclerotised chitin. [6]


The Pompeii worm lives at great depths by hydrothermal vents at temperatures up to 80 degC Alvinella pompejana01.jpg
The Pompeii worm lives at great depths by hydrothermal vents at temperatures up to 80 °C
Hesiocaeca methanicola lives at great depths on methane ice Hesiocaeca methanicola noaa.jpg
Hesiocaeca methanicola lives at great depths on methane ice
The cold seep tube worm Lamellibrachia can live over 250 years Lamellibrachia luymesi1.png
The cold seep tube worm Lamellibrachia can live over 250 years
The predatory Bobbit worm Eunice aphroditois.jpg
The predatory Bobbit worm

Polychaetes are extremely variable in both form and lifestyle, and include a few taxa that swim among the plankton or above the abyssal plain. Most burrow or build tubes in the sediment, and some live as commensals. A few are parasitic. The mobile forms (Errantia) tend to have well-developed sense organs and jaws, while the stationary forms (Sedentaria) lack them, but may have specialized gills or tentacles used for respiration and deposit or filter feeding, e.g., fanworms. Underwater polychaetes have eversible mouthparts used to capture prey. [7] [ self-published source? ] A few groups have evolved to live in terrestrial environments, like Namanereidinae with many terrestrial species, but are restricted to humid areas. Some have even evolved cutaneous invaginations for aerial gas exchange.

Notable polychaetes


Most polychaetes have separate sexes, rather than being hermaphroditic. The most primitive species have a pair of gonads in every segment, but most species exhibit some degree of specialisation. The gonads shed immature gametes directly into the body cavity, where they complete their development. Once mature, the gametes are shed into the surrounding water through ducts or openings that vary between species, or in some cases by the complete rupture of the body wall (and subsequent death of the adult). A few species copulate, but most fertilize their eggs externally.

The fertilized eggs typically hatch into trochophore larvae, which float among the plankton, and eventually metamorphose into the adult form by adding segments. A few species have no larval form, with the egg hatching into a form resembling the adult, and in many that do have larvae, the trochophore never feeds, surviving off the yolk that remains from the egg. [4]

However, some polychaetes exhibit remarkable reproductive strategies. Some species reproduce by epitoky. For much of the year, these worms look like any other burrow-dwelling polychaete, but as the breeding season approaches, the worm undergoes a remarkable transformation as new, specialized segments begin to grow from its rear end until the worm can be clearly divided into two halves. The front half, the atoke, is asexual. The new rear half, responsible for breeding, is known as the epitoke. Each of the epitoke segments is packed with eggs and sperm and features a single eyespot on its surface. The beginning of the last lunar quarter is the cue for these animals to breed, and the epitokes break free from the atokes and float to the surface. The eye spots sense when the epitoke reaches the surface and the segments from millions of worms burst, releasing their eggs and sperm into the water. [10]

A similar strategy is employed by the deep sea worm Syllis ramosa , which lives inside a sponge. The rear end of the worm develops into a "stolon" containing the eggs or sperm; this stolon then becomes detached from the parent worm and rises to the sea surface, where fertilisation takes place. [11]

Fossil record

Stem-group polychaete fossils are known from the Sirius Passet Lagerstätte, a rich, sedimentary deposit in Greenland tentatively dated to the late Atdabanian (early Cambrian). The oldest found is Phragmochaeta canicularis. [12] Many of the more famous Burgess Shale organisms, such as Canadia , may also have polychaete affinities. Wiwaxia , long interpreted as an annelid, [13] is now considered to represent a mollusc. [14] [15] An even older fossil, Cloudina , dates to the terminal Ediacaran period; this has been interpreted as an early polychaete, although consensus is absent. [16] [17]

Being soft-bodied organisms, the fossil record of polychaetes is dominated by their fossilized jaws, known as scolecodonts, and the mineralized tubes that some of them secrete. [18] Most important biomineralising polychaetes are serpulids, sabellids, and cirratulids. Polychaete cuticle does have some preservation potential; it tends to survive for at least 30 days after a polychaete's death. [6] Although biomineralisation is usually necessary to preserve soft tissue after this time, the presence of polychaete muscle in the nonmineralised Burgess shale shows this need not always be the case. [6] Their preservation potential is similar to that of jellyfish. [6]

Taxonomy and systematics

Head of Phyllodoce lineata Phyllodoce lineata.jpg
Head of Phyllodoce lineata
The plumes of the feather duster worm are used to filter water Pacific Feather Duster Sabellastarte sp.jpg
The plumes of the feather duster worm are used to filter water
Planktonic bristleworm Tomopteris Tomopteriskils.jpg
Planktonic bristleworm Tomopteris
Christmas tree worms Spirobrancheus giganteus.jpg
Christmas tree worms
Rag worms can be dangerous to touch, giving painful burns Nereis pelagica.jpg
Rag worms can be dangerous to touch, giving painful burns
Sandworms eat seaweed and microorganisms and can be longer than four feet Nereis virens.jpg
Sandworms eat seaweed and microorganisms and can be longer than four feet
Giant tube worms can tolerate extremely high hydrogen sulfide levels Riftia tube worm colony Galapagos 2011.jpg
Giant tube worms can tolerate extremely high hydrogen sulfide levels

Taxonomically, polychaetes are thought to be paraphyletic, [19] meaning the group excludes some descendants of its most recent common ancestor. Groups that may be descended from the polychaetes include the oligochaetes (earthworms and leeches), sipunculans, and echiurans. The Pogonophora and Vestimentifera were once considered separate phyla, but are now classified in the polychaete family Siboglinidae.

Much of the classification below matches Rouse & Fauchald, 1998, although that paper does not apply ranks above family.

Older classifications recognize many more (sub)orders than the layout presented here. As comparatively few polychaete taxa have been subject to cladistic analysis, some groups which are usually considered invalid today may eventually be reinstated.

These divisions were shown to be mostly paraphyletic in recent years.

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>Glycera</i> (annelid) Genus of annelid worms

The genus Glycera is a group of polychaetes commonly known as bloodworms. They are typically found on the bottom of shallow marine waters, and some species can grow up to 35 cm (14 in) in length.

<i>Wiwaxia</i> Genus of Cambrian animals

Wiwaxia is a genus of soft-bodied animals that were covered in carbonaceous scales and spines that protected it from predators. Wiwaxia fossils – mainly isolated scales, but sometimes complete, articulated fossils – are known from early Cambrian and middle Cambrian fossil deposits across the globe. The living animal would have measured up to 5 cm (2 inch) when fully grown, although a range of juvenile specimens are known, the smallest being 2 millimetres (0.079 in) long.


In invertebrates, the term parapodium refers to lateral outgrowths or protrusions from the body. Parapodia are predominantly found in annelids, where they are paired, unjointed lateral outgrowths that bear the chaetae. In several groups of sea snails and sea slugs, 'parapodium' refers to lateral fleshy protrusions.


A chaeta or cheta is a chitinous bristle or seta found in annelid worms,. Polychaete annelids, are named for their chaetae. In Polychaeta, chaetae are found as bundles on the parapodia, paired appendages on the side of the body. The chaetae are epidermal extracellular structures, and clearly visible in most polychaetes. They are probably the best studied structures in these animals.

Clitellata Class of annelid worms

The Clitellata are a class of annelid worms, characterized by having a clitellum - the 'collar' that forms a reproductive cocoon during part of their life cycles. The clitellates comprise around 8,000 species. Unlike the class of Polychaeta, they do not have parapodia and their heads are less developed.

<i>Odontogriphus</i> Genus of soft-bodied animals from middle Cambrian

Odontogriphus is a genus of soft-bodied animals known from middle Cambrian Lagerstätte. Reaching as much as 12.5 centimetres (4.9 in) in length, Odontogriphus is a flat, oval bilaterian which apparently had a single muscular foot, and a "shell" on its back that was moderately rigid but of a material unsuited to fossilization.

Eunicidae Family of annelids

Eunicidae is a family of marine polychaetes. The family comprises marine annelids distributed in diverse benthic habitats across Oceania, Europe, South America, North America, Asia and Africa. The Eunicid anatomy typically consists of a pair of appendages near the mouth (mandibles) and complex sets of muscular structures on the head (maxillae) in an eversible pharynx. One of the most conspicuous of the eunicids is the giant, dark-purple, iridescent "Bobbit worm", a bristle worm found at low tide under boulders on southern Australian shores. Its robust, muscular body can be as long as 2 m. Eunicidae jaws are known from as far back as Ordovician sediments. Cultural tradition surrounds Palola worm reproductive cycles in the South Pacific Islands. Eunicidae are economically valuable as bait in both recreational and commercial fishing. Commercial bait-farming of Eunicidae can have adverse ecological impacts. Bait-farming can deplete worm and associated fauna population numbers, damage local intertidal environments and introduce alien species to local aquatic ecosystems.

Terebellida Order of annelid worms

Terebellida make up an order of the Polychaeta class, commonly referred to as "bristle worms". Together with the Sabellida, the Spionida and some enigmatic families of unclear taxonomic relationship, they make up the subclass Canalipalpata, one of the three main clades of polychaetes. Like most polychaetes, almost all members of the Terebellida are marine organisms. Most are small, sessile detritivores which live in small tubes they build from mud or similar substrate, or burrow in the sand. Their central nervous system displays characteristic apomorphies.

<i>Canadia spinosa</i> Species of annelid (fossil)

Canadia is a genus of extinct annelid worm present in Burgess Shale type Konservat-Lagerstätte. It is found in strata dating back to the Delamaran stage of the Middle Cambrian around 505 million years ago, during the time of the Cambrian explosion. It was about 3 centimeters in length. Charles Doolittle Walcott named Canadia in 1911 after Canada, the country from which its remains have been found. 28 specimens of Canadia are known from the Greater Phyllopod bed, where they comprise 0.05% of the community.

<i>Serpula</i> Genus of annelid worms

Serpula is a genus of sessile, marine annelid tube worms that belongs to the family Serpulidae. Serpulid worms are very similar to tube worms of the closely related sabellid family, except that the former possess a cartilaginous operculum that occludes the entrance to their protective tube after the animal has withdrawn into it. The most distinctive feature of worms of the genus Serpula is their colorful fan-shaped "crown". The crown, used by these animals for respiration and alimentation, is the structure that is most commonly seen by scuba divers and other casual observers.

<i>Alitta succinea</i> Common clam worm

Alitta succinea is a species of marine annelid in the family Nereididae. It has been recorded throughout the North West Atlantic, as well as in the Gulf of Maine and South Africa.

<i>Pomatoceros triqueter</i> Species of annelid worm

Pomatoceros triqueter is a species of tube-building annelid worm in the class Polychaeta. It is common on the north eastern coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and in the Mediterranean Sea.

<i>Sabellastarte spectabilis</i> Species of annelid worm

Sabellastarte spectabilis is a species of benthic marine polychaete worm in the Sabellidae family. It is commonly known as the feather duster worm, feather duster or fan worm. It is native to tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific but has spread to other parts of the world. It is popular in aquariums because of its distinctive appearance and its ability to remove organic particles and improve water quality.

Phyllodocida Order of annelid worms

Phyllodocida is an order of polychaete worms in the subclass Aciculata. These worms are mostly marine though some are found in brackish water. Most are active benthic creatures, moving over the surface or burrowing in sediments, or living in cracks and crevices in bedrock. A few construct tubes in which they live and some are pelagic, swimming through the water column. There are estimated to be about 3,500 species in the order.

<i>Amphitrite ornata</i> Species of annelid worm

Amphitrite ornata or ornate worm, is a species of marine polychaete worm in the family Terebellidae.

Oweniidae Family of annelid worms

Oweniidae is a family of marine polychaete worms in the suborder Sabellida. The worms live in tubes made of sand and are selective filter feeders, detritivores and grazers.

Palpata Subclass of annelid worms

Palpata is a subclass of polychaete worm. Members of this subclass are mostly deposit feeders on marine detritus or filter feeders. Palpata has become superfluous with the elevation of Canalipalpata to subclass.

Spionida Order of annelid worms

Spionida is an order of marine polychaete worms in the infraclass Canalipalpata. Spionids are cosmopolitan and live in soft substrates in the littoral or neritic zones.

Annelid Phylum of segmented worms

The annelids, also known as the ringed worms or segmented worms, are a large phylum, with over 22,000 extant species including ragworms, earthworms, and leeches. The species exist in and have adapted to various ecologies – some in marine environments as distinct as tidal zones and hydrothermal vents, others in fresh water, and yet others in moist terrestrial environments.

<i>Scolelepis squamata</i> Species of annelid worm

Scolelepis squamata is a species of polychaete worm in the family Spionidae. It occurs on the lower shore of coasts on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.




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