Flatworms are dorso-ventrally flattened. The epidermis is generally ciliated in the turbellarians, while trematodes and cestodes are covered with a cuticle. Beneath the outer covering are two layers of muscle, an outer circular layer, and an inner longitudinal layer; this arrangement permits an undulating form of locomotion that can be observed in the larger turbellarian species. A saclike digestive cavity, with a single opening to the outside that serves as both mouth and anus, is sometimes present; in the simpler forms it is absent or unbranched, but in higher forms it branches to all parts of the body. The major sense organs, when present, are concentrated in the head, or front end. Although a primitive nerve net is present in some of the simpler forms, others have several nerve cords extending from a brain along the length of the body. The latter pattern of organization is retained in the nervous systems of higher invertebrates, specifically annelids and arthropods.
The reproductive system of flatworms is characteristically hermaphroditic (i.e., each individual produces both eggs and sperm), and cross-fertilization between individuals is typical. While trematodes and cestodes shed eggs almost continuously, turbellarians exhibit seasonal reproductive activity and, in addition, display asexual reproduction and the ability to regenerate severed parts of the body.
All except the simplest flatworms have nephridial tubules, called protonephridia, usually distributed throughout the body. Such structures consist of an external opening and a tubule that branches internally, terminating in a number of blind, bulb-shaped structures called flame bulbs, which bear tufts of cilia. They probably function as excretory and osmoregulatory organs.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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