The annelids include earthworms, polychaete worms, and leeches. All members of the group are to some extent segmented, in other words, made up of segments that are formed by subdivisions that partially transect the body cavity. Segmentation is also called metamerism. Segments each contain elements of such body systems as circulatory, nervous, and excretory tracts. Metamerism increases the efficiency of body movement by allowing the effect of muscle contraction to be extremely localized, and it makes possible the development of greater complexity in general body organization.
Besides being segmented, the body wall of annelids is characterized by being made up of both circular and longitudinal muscle fibers surrounded by a moist, acellular cuticle that is secreted by an epidermal epithelium. All annelids except leeches also have chitonous hair-like structures, called setae, projecting from their cuticle. Sometimes the setae are located on paddle-like appendages called parapodia.
Annelids are schizocoelous and with a large and well-developed true coelom (i.e., one that is lined with mesoderm). Except in leeches, the coelom is partially subdivided by septa. Hydrostatic pressure is maintained across segments and helps maintain body rigidity, allowing muscle contractions to bend the body without collapsing it.
The internal organs of annelids are well developed. They include a closed, segmentally-arranged circulatory system. The digestive system is a complete tube with mouth and anus. Gases are exchanged through the skin, or sometimes through specialized gills or modified parapodia. Each segment typically contains a pair of nephridia. The nervous system includes a pair of cephalic ganglia attached to double nerve cords that run the length of the animal along the ventral body wall, with ganglia and branches in each segment. Annelids have some combination of tactile organs, chemoreceptors, balance receptors, and photoreceptors; some forms have fairly well developed eyes, including lenses.
Annelids may be monoecious or dioecious. Larva may or may not be present; if present they are of the trochophore type. Some forms also reproduce asexually. They are protostomes, with spiral cleavage.
Members of the Phylum Annelida can be found throughout the world, in marine, freshwater, and terrestrial environments. Ecologically, they range from passive filter feeders to voracious and active predators.
Hickman, C.P. and L. S. Roberts. 1994. Animal Diversity. Wm. C. Brown, Dubuque, IA.
Brusca, R. C., and G. J. Brusca. Invertebrates. 1990. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, MA.
Phil Myers (author), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.