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PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e59090. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0059090. Epub 2013 Mar 13.

Neural markers reveal a one-segmented head in tardigrades (water bears).

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Animal Evolution and Development, Institute of Biology, University of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany.



While recent neuroanatomical and gene expression studies have clarified the alignment of cephalic segments in arthropods and onychophorans, the identity of head segments in tardigrades remains controversial. In particular, it is unclear whether the tardigrade head and its enclosed brain comprises one, or several segments, or a non-segmental structure. To clarify this, we applied a variety of histochemical and immunocytochemical markers to specimens of the tardigrade Macrobiotus cf. harmsworthi and the onychophoran Euperipatoides rowelli.


Our immunolabelling against serotonin, FMRFamide and α-tubulin reveals that the tardigrade brain is a dorsal, bilaterally symmetric structure that resembles the brain of onychophorans and arthropods rather than a circumoesophageal ring typical of cycloneuralians (nematodes and allies). A suboesophageal ganglion is clearly lacking. Our data further reveal a hitherto unknown, unpaired stomatogastric ganglion in Macrobiotus cf. harmsworthi, which innervates the ectodermal oesophagus and the endodermal midgut and is associated with the second leg-bearing segment. In contrast, the oesophagus of the onychophoran E. rowelli possesses no immunoreactive neurons, whereas scattered bipolar, serotonin-like immunoreactive cell bodies are found in the midgut wall. Furthermore, our results show that the onychophoran pharynx is innervated by a medullary loop nerve accompanied by monopolar, serotonin-like immunoreactive cell bodies.


A comparison of the nervous system innervating the foregut and midgut structures in tardigrades and onychophorans to that of arthropods indicates that the stomatogastric ganglion is a potential synapomorphy of Tardigrada and Arthropoda. Its association with the second leg-bearing segment in tardigrades suggests that the second trunk ganglion is a homologue of the arthropod tritocerebrum, whereas the first ganglion corresponds to the deutocerebrum. We therefore conclude that the tardigrade brain consists of a single segmental region corresponding to the arthropod protocerebrum and, accordingly, that the tardigrade head is a non-composite, one-segmented structure.

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