Phylum Rotifera

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the unique anatomical and morphological features of rotifers

The rotifers are a microscopic (about 100 µm to 30 mm) group of mostly aquatic organisms that get their name from the corona, a rotating, wheel-like structure that is covered with cilia at their anterior end (Figure 1). Although their taxonomy is currently in flux, one treatment places the rotifers in three classes: Bdelloidea, Monogononta, and Seisonidea. The classification of the group is currently under revision, however, as more phylogenetic evidence becomes available. It is possible that the “spiny headed worms” currently in phylum Acanthocephala will be incorporated into this group in the future.

The body form of rotifers consists of a head (which contains the corona), a trunk (which contains the organs), and the foot. Rotifers are typically free-swimming and truly planktonic organisms, but the toes or extensions of the foot can secrete a sticky material forming a holdfast to help them adhere to surfaces. The head contains sensory organs in the form of a bi-lobed brain and small eyespots near the corona.

Scanning electron micrograph A shows rotifers from the class Bdelloidea, which have a long, tube-shaped body with a fringe surrounding the mouth. Light micrograph B shows that Polyarthra from the class Monogononta is shorter and wider than the bdelloid rotifers, with a smaller fringe.

Figure 1. Shown are examples from two of the three classes of rotifer. (a) Species from the class Bdelloidea are characterized by a large corona, shown separately from the whole animals in the center of this scanning electron micrograph. (b) Polyarthra, from the class Monogononta, has a smaller corona than Bdelloid rotifers, and a single gonad, which give the class its name. (credit a: modification of work by Diego Fontaneto; credit b: modification of work by U.S. EPA; scale-bar data from Cory Zanker)

The rotifers are filter feeders that will eat dead material, algae, and other microscopic living organisms, and are therefore very important components of aquatic food webs. Rotifers obtain food that is directed toward the mouth by the current created from the movement of the corona. The food particles enter the mouth and travel to the mastax (pharynx with jaw-like structures). Food then passes by digestive and salivary glands, and into the stomach, then onto the intestines. Digestive and excretory wastes are collected in a cloacal bladder before being released out the anus.

Watch the video below to see rotifers feeding. Note that this video has no audio.

You can view the descriptive transcript for “Rotifer Feeding II” here (opens in new window).

Rotifers are pseudocoelomates commonly found in fresh water and some salt water environments throughout the world. Figure 2 shows the anatomy of a rotifer belonging to class Bdelloidea. About 2,200 species of rotifers have been identified. Rotifers are dioecious organisms (having either male or female genitalia) and exhibit sexual dimorphism (males and females have different forms). Many species are parthenogenic and exhibit haplodiploidy, a method of gender determination in which a fertilized egg develops into a female and an unfertilized egg develops into a male. In many dioecious species, males are short-lived and smaller with no digestive system and a single testis. Females can produce eggs that are capable of dormancy for protection during harsh environmental conditions.

The illustration shows long, tube-shaped animal with a crown-like corona on top. Cilia fringe the top of the corona. Between the two lobes of the corona is the mouth, which leads to the stomach, intestine, and anus. The mastax surround the mouth, and beneath the mastax is a digestive gland. The pseudocoel surrounds the stomach. At the bottom if the animal is a foot that stands on two toes.

Figure 2. This illustration shows the anatomy of a bdelloid rotifer.

In Summary: Phylum Rotifera

The rotifers are microscopic, multicellular, mostly aquatic organisms that are currently under taxonomic revision. The group is characterized by the rotating, ciliated, wheel-like structure, the corona, on their head. The mastax or jawed pharynx is another structure unique to this group of organisms.

Try It