Characteristics of Phylum Cnidaria

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify common structural and organizational characteristics of the phylum Cnidaria

Phylum Cnidaria includes animals that show radial or biradial symmetry and are diploblastic, that is, they develop from two embryonic layers. Nearly all (about 99 percent) cnidarians are marine species.

Cnidarians contain specialized cells known as cnidocytes (“stinging cells”) containing organelles called nematocysts (stingers). These cells are present around the mouth and tentacles, and serve to immobilize prey with toxins contained within the cells. Nematocysts contain coiled threads that may bear barbs. The outer wall of the cell has hairlike projections called cnidocils, which are sensitive to touch. When touched, the cells are known to fire coiled threads that can either penetrate the flesh of the prey or predators of cnidarians (see Figure 1) or ensnare it. These coiled threads release toxins into the target and can often immobilize prey or scare away predators.

The illustration shows a nematocyst before (a) and after (b) firing. The nematocyst is a large, oval organelle inside a rectangular cnidocyte cell. The nematocyst is flush with the plasma membrane, and a touch-sensitive hairlike projection extends from the nematocyst to the cell’s exterior. Inside the nematocyst, a thread is coiled around an inverted barb. Upon firing, a lid on the nematocyst opens. The barb pops out of the cell and the thread uncoils.

Figure 1. Animals from the phylum Cnidaria have stinging cells called cnidocytes. Cnidocytes contain large organelles called (a) nematocysts that store a coiled thread and barb. When hairlike projections on the cell surface are touched, (b) the thread, barb, and a toxin are fired from the organelle.

View this video animation showing two anemones engaged in a battle.

You can view the transcript for “Nematocyst Animation – Fighting Tentacles” here (link opens in new window).

The illustration compares the medusa (a) and polyp (b) body plans. The medusa is dome-shaped, with tentacle-like appendages hanging down from the edges of the dome. The polyp looks like a tree, with a trunk at the bottom and branches at the top. Both the medusa and polyp have two tissue layers, with mesoglea in between. The mesoglea is thicker in the dome of the medusa than in the polyp. Both also have a central body cavity.

Figure 2. Cnidarians have two distinct body plans, the medusa (a) and the polyp (b). All cnidarians have two membrane layers, with a jelly-like mesoglea between them.

Animals in this phylum display two distinct morphological body plans: polyp or “stalk” and medusa or “bell” (Figure 2). An example of the polyp form is Hydra spp.; perhaps the most well-known medusoid animals are the jellies (jellyfish). Polyp forms are sessile as adults, with a single opening to the digestive system (the mouth) facing up with tentacles surrounding it. Medusa forms are motile, with the mouth and tentacles hanging down from an umbrella-shaped bell.

Some cnidarians are polymorphic, that is, they have two body plans during their life cycle. An example is the colonial hydroid called an Obelia. The sessile polyp form has, in fact, two types of polyps, shown in Figure 3. The first is the gastrozooid, which is adapted for capturing prey and feeding; the other type of polyp is the gonozooid, adapted for the asexual budding of medusa. When the reproductive buds mature, they break off and become free-swimming medusa, which are either male or female (dioecious). The male medusa makes sperm, whereas the female medusa makes eggs. After fertilization, the zygote develops into a blastula, which develops into a planula larva. The larva is free swimming for a while, but eventually attaches and a new colonial reproductive polyp is formed.

Illustration a shows Obelia geniculata, which has a body composed of branching polyps of two different types.

Figure 3. The sessile form of Obelia geniculate has two types of polyps: gastrozooids, which are adapted for capturing prey, and gonozooids, which bud to produce medusae asexually.

Click here to follow the life cycle of the Obelia.

All cnidarians show the presence of two membrane layers in the body that are derived from the endoderm and ectoderm of the embryo. The outer layer (from ectoderm) is called the epidermis and lines the outside of the animal, whereas the inner layer (from endoderm) is called the gastrodermis and lines the digestive cavity. Between these two membrane layers is a non-living, jelly-like mesoglea connective layer. In terms of cellular complexity, cnidarians show the presence of differentiated cell types in each tissue layer, such as nerve cells, contractile epithelial cells, enzyme-secreting cells, and nutrient-absorbing cells, as well as the presence of intercellular connections. However, the development of organs or organ systems is not advanced in this phylum.

The nervous system is primitive, with nerve cells scattered across the body. This nerve net may show the presence of groups of cells in the form of nerve plexi (singular plexus) or nerve cords. The nerve cells show mixed characteristics of motor as well as sensory neurons. The predominant signaling molecules in these primitive nervous systems are chemical peptides, which perform both excitatory and inhibitory functions. Despite the simplicity of the nervous system, it coordinates the movement of tentacles, the drawing of captured prey to the mouth, the digestion of food, and the expulsion of waste.

The cnidarians perform extracellular digestion in which the food is taken into the gastrovascular cavity, enzymes are secreted into the cavity, and the cells lining the cavity absorb nutrients. The gastrovascular cavity has only one opening that serves as both a mouth and an anus, which is termed an incomplete digestive system. Cnidarian cells exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide by diffusion between cells in the epidermis with water in the environment, and between cells in the gastrodermis with water in the gastrovascular cavity. The lack of a circulatory system to move dissolved gases limits the thickness of the body wall and necessitates a non-living mesoglea between the layers. There is no excretory system or organs, and nitrogenous wastes simply diffuse from the cells into the water outside the animal or in the gastrovascular cavity. There is also no circulatory system, so nutrients must move from the cells that absorb them in the lining of the gastrovascular cavity through the mesoglea to other cells.

The phylum Cnidaria contains about 10,000 described species divided into four classes: Anthozoa, Scyphozoa, Cubozoa, and Hydrozoa. The anthozoans, the sea anemones and corals, are all sessile species, whereas the scyphozoans (jellyfish) and cubozoans (box jellies) are swimming forms. The hydrozoans contain sessile forms and swimming colonial forms like the Portuguese Man O’ War.

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