Lancelets and Tunicates: Unveiling the Secrets of Chordates


Lancelets and tunicates are fascinating creatures that belong to the phylum Chordata. Despite their seemingly simple appearances, they hold significant importance in the study of evolutionary biology and the understanding of vertebrate origins. In this article, we will explore the unique characteristics, life cycles, and ecological roles of lancelets and tunicates, shedding light on their remarkable contributions to the tree of life.

Lancelets: The Ancient Chordates

What are Lancelets?

Lancelets, also known as amphioxus, are small marine animals that inhabit the sandy bottoms of coastal waters. They represent one of the most primitive lineages of chordates and have characteristics that closely resemble the common ancestor of all vertebrates. Lancelets have a slender, fish-like shape and are filter feeders, extracting nutrients from the surrounding water.

Anatomy and Features of Lancelets

Lancelets possess several key anatomical features that link them to other chordates. They have a notochord, a flexible rod-like structure that runs along the length of their body, providing support. The notochord is surrounded by a hollow nerve cord, which becomes the spinal cord in vertebrates. Additionally, lancelets possess pharyngeal slits, which are used for filter-feeding and respiration.

Life Cycle of Lancelets

Lancelets have a complex life cycle that involves both sexual and asexual reproduction. They are hermaphroditic, meaning that each individual possesses both male and female reproductive organs. They release eggs and sperm into the water, where fertilization occurs externally. The fertilized eggs develop into larvae, which undergo metamorphosis to become adult lancelets.

Tunicates: The Filter-Feeding Sessile Chordates

What are Tunicates?

Tunicates, also known as sea squirts, are marine organisms that belong to the subphylum Tunicata. They are found in various marine habitats, from shallow coastal waters to the depths of the ocean. Tunicates display a wide range of forms, from solitary individuals to colonial species. While they may appear different from lancelets, they are indeed chordates, sharing key features during their early development.

Anatomy and Features of Tunicates

Tunicates have a unique body structure that sets them apart from other chordates. They possess a protective outer covering called a tunic, which gives them their common name. The tunic is made of a carbohydrate-rich substance called cellulose. Tunicates also have a rudimentary notochord during their larval stage, which is eventually lost during metamorphosis into the adult form.

Filter-Feeding Lifestyle

One of the distinctive characteristics of tunicates is their filter-feeding lifestyle. They have an oral siphon through which water is drawn into their body. As the water passes through their pharynx, mucus-covered gill slits remove microscopic particles, such as plankton, for food. Tunicates play an essential role in marine ecosystems by filtering and recycling nutrients, contributing to the overall health of the environment.

Life Cycle of Tunicates

Tunicates have a fascinating life cycle that involves a larval stage called the tadpole larva. The tadpole larva possesses a notochord, a hollow nerve cord, and other chordate characteristics. During this stage, it is free-swimming and has the ability to move and explore its surroundings. Eventually, the tadpole larva undergoes metamorphosis, attaching itself to a substrate and transforming into the sessile adult form.

Comparing Lancelets and Tunicates

Evolutionary Significance

Lancelets and tunicates are crucial in understanding the evolutionary history of chordates and the origins of vertebrates. It is believed that these two groups diverged millions of years ago, with lancelets retaining many ancestral chordate characteristics and tunicates undergoing significant modifications as they adapted to different ecological niches.

Chordate Characteristics

Both lancelets and tunicates possess key chordate characteristics during their early development. They have a notochord, a hollow nerve cord, and pharyngeal slits, which are crucial for their filter-feeding lifestyles. These shared features provide valuable insights into the origin and evolution of these traits in vertebrates.

Ecological Roles

Lancelets and tunicates play important ecological roles in marine ecosystems. Lancelets contribute to the nutrient cycles by filtering organic particles from the water and serving as a food source for other organisms. Tunicates, on the other hand, help maintain water quality and promote biodiversity through their filter-feeding activities.


Q1: Are lancelets and tunicates considered vertebrates?

No, neither lancelets nor tunicates are considered vertebrates. While they share certain chordate characteristics, such as a notochord and nerve cord, they lack a true backbone, which isfound in vertebrates.

Q2: Can lancelets and tunicates reproduce asexually?

Yes, both lancelets and tunicates have the ability to reproduce asexually. This can occur through budding, where a new individual develops as an outgrowth from the parent organism. However, they also reproduce sexually, with the release of eggs and sperm into the water for external fertilization.

Q3: How do tunicates differ from other sessile organisms?

Tunicates differ from other sessile organisms in their chordate characteristics during their larval stage. While they may appear similar to sponges or other stationary organisms, tunicates possess a notochord, nerve cord, and other features that link them to the chordate group.

Q4: Do lancelets and tunicates have any economic importance?

Lancelets and tunicates have limited economic importance. Some species of tunicates are used in biomedical research due to their unique cellular properties. Additionally, certain lancelet species are occasionally used as bait in fishing. However, their overall economic significance is relatively minor compared to other marine organisms.

Q5: Are lancelets and tunicates endangered?

Lancelets and tunicates are not considered endangered as they are widespread in various marine habitats. However, certain species may face localized threats due to habitat destruction, pollution, or overfishing. Conservation efforts are focused on maintaining the health of marine ecosystems, which indirectly benefits these species as well.


Lancelets and tunicates provide a glimpse into the fascinating world of chordates and the evolutionary journey that led to the emergence of vertebrates. Despite their seemingly simple appearances, these creatures hold immense significance in scientific research and contribute to the overall balance of marine ecosystems. By studying and appreciating the unique characteristics and ecological roles of lancelets and tunicates, we gain a deeper understanding of the rich diversity of life on our planet. So, let us continue to explore and marvel at the wonders of these ancient chordates. Stay in character.