Bilaterally symmetrical
Post-anal tail in some stage of life cycle, usually used in swimming
Through gut and non-terminal anus
Large pharynx with slits to the exterior
Suspension feeders, with water leaving the body through the pharyngeal slits
Notochord in at least some stages of life cycle
Dorsal hollow nerve cord in at least some stages of life cycle
Epidermis non-ciliated
Segmented muscles
Ventral heart
Endoskeleton of bone or cartilage

Latin: chorda = cord

The phylum Chordata has three Subphyla, the Urochordata, the Cephalochordata and the the Vertebrata. Only the first two are invertebrates.

The chordata have an endoskeleton so they can grow continuously without moulting. The endoskeleton provides a framework for muscles to attach to. According to recent molecular research it is believed that the Chordata evolved from the Echinodermata.


Urochordata have a notochord and nerve cord in the free-swimming larval stage only. The adults are sessile and encased in a tunic. They have no excretory organs and are hermaphrodite. They are found in all seas at all depths. The larval form is tadpole-shaped.

Class Thaliacea

There are 70 Thaliacea species and all are planktonic. They have barrel-shaped, transparent, gelatinous bodies and some live colonially. Many have luminous organs Asexual and sexual reproduction is possible and also budding.

Class Larvacea

There are 70 known Larvacea species, all marine and about 5 mm in length. They have a long tail throughout their life, and inhabit a walnut-sized gelatinous test. The beating of the tail causes water to be drawn in and filtered particles are eaten. The filters in the gelatinous test become clogged with waste, and the animal abandons it and builds a new one, which takes only minutes. They are never colonial and reproduction is always sexual.

Class Ascidiacea

Ascidiacea are commonly known as the sea squirts, and are the most common class, there are about 2000 species, all marine. There are solitary, colonial and compound species. Compound individuals share the same tunic and may have a common excurrent siphon.Sea squirts are also called tunicates because a tunic of cellulose-like substance envelops the body of adults, see the drawing below. The larval stage is usually free-living and the body shape is similar to a tadpole (see below). They have a notochord during their larval stages only. The adult attaches by the head to the substrate, and differential growth leads to the mouth migrating to what is now the upper end. As it will never move again it absorbs its own notochord and brain as this is unnecessary to its new life.

Ascidiacea larva

Ascidians have an unusual heart which pumps blood in two directions reversing after a few beats. Many species are colonial, and asexual reproduction by budding is common. They also have the ability to regenerate their entire body form from a fragment. So if a sea squirt is cut up in pieces, each piece containing a blood vessel can regenerate a whole new sea squirt.

Sea squirts often cause problems by colonising buoys, the hulls of ships and piers.

tunicate adult

above adult stage of sea squirt inside its cellulose-like tunic

They are filter feeders drawing water in through the incurrent siphon (mouth) usually located at the top (see above), and expelling water and waste through the excurrent siphon. The food particles are caught in a mucous net and passed to the intestine by cilial action. They get their common name of sea squirts because they can squirt a jet of water out of the excurrent siphon if they feel threatened.


Cephalochordata are commonly known as the lancelets, there are 25 known species. They are usually less than 10 cm long and free living. They are sedentary and are usually partly buried in the sand in coastal waters, however they do swim when changing location. They are fish-like, but without a differentiated head. Their body is translucent and they have v-shaped muscle blocks. They have a hollow, dorsal nerve cord which extends almost the whole length of their body throughout their lives. Adult lancelets resemble larval tunicates (see above), and possibly evolved from them. This retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood is called neotony. Lancelets have been in existence since the Cambrian.

Amphioxus lanceolatus, below, has no distinct head, and is found in shell gravel or coarse sand. It burrows head end first down into the sand, and then turns upwards until its head end emerges. It is a filter feeder. The water passes through the oral spines which stop larger particles and debris, then into the mouth and pharynx, and across the gills.

Amphioxus lanceolatus, lancelet