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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. Oct 29, 2001; 356(1414): 1565–1572.
PMCID: PMC1088536

New perspectives on the evolution of protochordate sensory and locomotory systems, and the origin of brains and heads.


Cladistic analyses generally place tunicates close to the base of the chordate lineage, consistent with the assumption that the tunicate tail is primitively simple, not secondarily reduced from a segmented trunk. Cephalochordates (i.e. amphioxus) are segmented and resemble vertebrates in having two distinct locomotory modes, slow for distance swimming and fast for escape, that depend on separate sets of motor neurons and muscle cells. The sense organs of both amphioxus and tunicate larvae serve essentially as navigational aids and, despite some uncertainty as to homologies, current molecular and ultrastructural data imply a close relationship between them. There are far fewer signs of modification and reduction in the amphioxus central nervous system (CNS), however, so it is arguably the closer to the ancestral condition. Similarities between amphioxus and tunicate sense organs are then most easily explained if distance swimming evolved before and escape behaviour after the two lineages diverged, leaving tunicates to adopt more passive means of avoiding predation. Neither group has the kind of sense organs or sensory integration centres an organism would need to monitor predators, yet mobile predators with eyes were probably important in the early Palaeozoic. For a predator, improvements in vision and locomotion are mutually reinforcing. Both features probably evolved rapidly and together, in an 'arms race' of eyes, brains and segments that left protochordates behind, and ultimately produced the vertebrate head.

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Selected References

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