Free-living species of flatworms are predators or scavengers, whereas parasitic forms feed from the tissues of their hosts. Most flatworms have an incomplete digestive system with an opening, the “mouth,” that is also used to expel digestive system wastes. Some species also have an anal opening. The gut may be a simple sac or highly branched. Digestion is extracellular, with enzymes secreted into the space by cells lining the tract, and digested materials taken into the same cells by phagocytosis. One group, the cestodes, does not have a digestive system, because their parasitic lifestyle and the environment in which they live (suspended within the digestive cavity of their host) allows them to absorb nutrients directly across their body wall. Flatworms have an excretory system with a network of tubules throughout the body that open to the environment and nearby flame cells, whose cilia beat to direct waste fluids concentrated in the tubules out of the body. The system is responsible for regulation of dissolved salts and excretion of nitrogenous wastes. The nervous system consists of a pair of nerve cords running the length of the body with connections between them and a large ganglion or concentration of nerve cells at the anterior end of the worm; here, there may also be a concentration of photosensory and chemosensory cells (Figure 15.15).
Since there is no circulatory or respiratory system, gas and nutrient exchange is dependent on diffusion and intercellular junctions. This necessarily limits the thickness of the body in these organisms, constraining them to be “flat” worms. Most flatworm species are monoecious (hermaphroditic, possessing both sets of sex organs), and fertilization is typically internal. Asexual reproduction is common in some groups in which an entire organism can be regenerated from just a part of itself.