Flatworms are traditionally divided into four classes: Turbellaria, Monogenea, Trematoda, and Cestoda (Figure 15.16). The turbellarians include mainly free-living marine species, although some species live in freshwater or moist terrestrial environments. The simple planarians found in freshwater ponds and aquaria are examples. The epidermal layer of the underside of turbellarians is ciliated, and this helps them move. Some turbellarians are capable of remarkable feats of regeneration in which they may regrow the body, even from a small fragment.
The monogeneans are external parasites mostly of fish with life cycles consisting of a free-swimming larva that attaches to a fish to begin transformation to the parasitic adult form. They have only one host during their life, typically of just one species. The worms may produce enzymes that digest the host tissues or graze on surface mucus and skin particles. Most monogeneans are hermaphroditic, but the sperm develop first, and it is typical for them to mate between individuals and not to self-fertilize.
The trematodes, or flukes, are internal parasites of mollusks and many other groups, including humans. Trematodes have complex life cycles that involve a primary host in which sexual reproduction occurs and one or more secondary hosts in which asexual reproduction occurs. The primary host is almost always a mollusk. Trematodes are responsible for serious human diseases including schistosomiasis, caused by a blood fluke (Schistosoma). The disease infects an estimated 200 million people in the tropics and leads to organ damage and chronic symptoms including fatigue. Infection occurs when a human enters the water, and a larva, released from the primary snail host, locates and penetrates the skin. The parasite infects various organs in the body and feeds on red blood cells before reproducing. Many of the eggs are released in feces and find their way into a waterway where they are able to reinfect the primary snail host.
The cestodes, or tapeworms, are also internal parasites, mainly of vertebrates. Tapeworms live in the intestinal tract of the primary host and remain fixed using a sucker on the anterior end, or scolex, of the tapeworm body. The remaining body of the tapeworm is made up of a long series of units called proglottids, each of which may contain an excretory system with flame cells, but will contain reproductive structures, both male and female. Tapeworms do not have a digestive system, they absorb nutrients from the food matter passing them in the host’s intestine. Proglottids are produced at the scolex and are pushed to the end of the tapeworm as new proglottids form, at which point, they are “mature” and all structures except fertilized eggs have degenerated. Most reproduction occurs by cross-fertilization. The proglottid detaches and is released in the feces of the host. The fertilized eggs are eaten by an intermediate host. The juvenile worms emerge and infect the intermediate host, taking up residence, usually in muscle tissue. When the muscle tissue is eaten by the primary host, the cycle is completed. There are several tapeworm parasites of humans that are acquired by eating uncooked or poorly cooked pork, beef, and fish.