Phylum Annelida includes the classes Polychaeta and Clitellata (Figure 15.30); the latter contains subclasses Oligochaeta, Hirudinoidea, and Branchiobdellida.
Earthworms are the most abundant members of the subclass Oligochaeta, distinguished by the presence of the clitellum, a ring structure in the skin that secretes mucus to bind mating individuals and forms a protective cocoon for the eggs. They also have a few, reduced chaetae (oligo- = “few”; -chaetae = “hairs”). The number and size of chaetae is greatly diminished in oligochaetes as compared to the polychaetes (poly- = “many”; -chaetae = “hairs”). The chaetae of polychaetes are also arranged within fleshy, flat, paired appendages on each segment called parapodia.
The subclass Hirudinoidea includes leeches. Significant differences between leeches and other annelids include the development of suckers at the anterior and posterior ends, and the absence of chaetae. Additionally, the segmentation of the body wall may not correspond to internal segmentation of the coelomic cavity. This adaptation may allow leeches to swell when ingesting blood from host vertebrates. The subclass Branchiobdellida includes about 150 species that show similarity to leeches as well as oligochaetes. All species are obligate symbionts, meaning that they can only survive associated with their host, mainly with freshwater crayfish. They feed on the algae that grows on the carapace of the crayfish.
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