Subphylums of Arthropoda

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify the different subphylums in phylum Arthropoda

Arthropods represent the most successful phylum of animal on Earth, in terms of the number of species as well as the number of individuals. These animals are characterized by a segmented body as well as the presence of jointed appendages. In the basic body plan, a pair of appendages is present per body segment. Within the phylum, traditional classification is based on mouthparts, number of appendages, and modifications of appendages present. Arthropods bear a chitinous exoskeleton. Gills, trachea, and book lungs facilitate respiration. Sexual dimorphism is seen in this phylum, and embryonic development includes multiple larval stages.

Subphylum Hexapoda

The name Hexapoda denotes the presence of six legs (three pairs) in these animals as differentiated from the number of pairs present in other arthropods. Hexapods are characterized by the presence of a head, thorax, and abdomen, constituting three tagma. The thorax bears the wings as well as six legs in three pairs. Many of the common insects we encounter on a daily basis—including ants, cockroaches, butterflies, and flies—are examples of Hexapoda.

Amongst the hexapods, the insects (Figure 1) are the largest class in terms of species diversity as well as biomass in terrestrial habitats. Typically, the head bears one pair of sensory antennae, mandibles as mouthparts, a pair of compound eyes, and some ocelli (simple eyes) along with numerous sensory hairs. The thorax bears three pairs of legs (one pair per segment) and two pairs of wings, with one pair each on the second and third thoracic segments. The abdomen usually has eleven segments and bears reproductive apertures. Hexapoda includes insects that are winged (like fruit flies) and wingless (like fleas).

The illustration shows the anatomy of a bee. The digestive system consists of a mouth, pharynx, stomach, intestine, and anus. The respiratory system consists of spiracles, or openings, along the side of the bee’s body that connect to tubes that run up and join a larger dorsal tube that connects all the spiracles together. The circulatory system consists of a dorsal blood vessel that has multiple hearts along its length. The nervous system consists of cerebral ganglia in the head that connect to a ventral nerve cord.

Figure 1. In this basic anatomy of a hexapod insect, note that insects have a developed digestive system (yellow), a respiratory system (blue), a circulatory system (red), and a nervous system (red).

Practice Question

Which of the following statements about insects is false?

  1. Insects have both dorsal and ventral blood vessels.
  2. Insects have spiracles, openings that allow air to enter.
  3. The trachea is part of the digestive system.
  4. Insects have a developed digestive system with a mouth, crop, and intestine.

Subphylum Myriapoda

Subphylum Myriapoda includes arthropods with numerous legs. Although the name is hyperbolic in suggesting that myriad legs are present in these invertebrates, the number of legs may vary from 10 to 750. This subphylum includes 13,000 species; the most commonly found examples are millipedes and centipedes. All myriapods are terrestrial animals and prefer a humid environment.

Myriapods are typically found in moist soils, decaying biological material, and leaf litter. Subphylum Myriapoda is divided into four classes: Chilopoda, Symphyla, Diplopoda, and Pauropoda. Centipedes like Scutigera coleoptrata (Figure 2a) are classified as chilopods. These animals bear one pair of legs per segment, mandibles as mouthparts, and are somewhat dorsoventrally flattened. The legs in the first segment are modified to form forcipules (poison claws) that deliver poison to prey like spiders and cockroaches, as these animals are all predatory. Millipedes bear two pairs of legs per diplosegment, a feature that results from embryonic fusion of adjacent pairs of body segments, are usually rounder in cross-section, and are herbivores or detritivores. Millipedes have visibly more numbers of legs as compared to centipedes, although they do not bear a thousand legs (Figure 2b).

Part A shows a centipede with many, very long legs. Part B shows a green and brown-striped millipede coiled around itself. It has many little legs.

Figure 2. (a) The Scutigera coleoptrata centipede has up to 15 pairs of legs. (b) This North American millipede (Narceus americanus) bears many legs, although not a thousand, as its name might suggest. (credit a: modification of work by Bruce Marlin; credit b: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

Subphylum Crustacea

Crustaceans are the most dominant aquatic arthropods, since the total number of marine crustacean species stands at 67,000, but there are also freshwater and terrestrial crustacean species. Krill, shrimp, lobsters, crabs, and crayfish are examples of crustaceans (Figure 3). Terrestrial species like the wood lice (Armadillidium spp.) (also called pill bugs, rolly pollies, potato bugs, or isopods) are also crustaceans, although the number of non-aquatic species in this subphylum is relatively low.

Photo a shows a crab on land, and photo b shows a bright red shrimp in the water.

Figure 3. The (a) crab and (b) shrimp krill are both crustaceans. (credit a: modification of work by William Warby; credit b: modification of work by Jon Sullivan)

Crustaceans possess two pairs of antennae, mandibles as mouthparts, and biramous (“two branched”) appendages, which means that their legs are formed in two parts, as distinct from the uniramous (“one branched”) myriapods and hexapods (Figure 4).

Illustration A shows the biramous, or two-branched leg of a crayfish. Illustration B shows the uniramous, or one-branched leg of an insect.

Figure 4. Arthropods may have (a) biramous (two-branched) appendages or (b) uniramous (one-branched) appendages. (credit b: modification of work by Nicholas W. Beeson)

Unlike that of the Hexapoda, the head and thorax of most crustaceans is fused to form a cephalothorax (Figure 5), which is covered by a plate called the carapace, thus producing a body structure of two tagma. Crustaceans have a chitinous exoskeleton that is shed by molting whenever the animal increases in size. The exoskeletons of many species are also infused with calcium carbonate, which makes them even stronger than in other arthropods. Crustaceans have an open circulatory system where blood is pumped into the hemocoel by the dorsally located heart. Hemocyanin and hemoglobin are the respiratory pigments present in these animals.

An illustration of a midsagittal cross section of a crayfish shows the carapace around the cephalothorax, and the heart in the dorsal thorax area.

Figure 5. The crayfish is an example of a crustacean. It has a carapace around the cephalothorax and the heart in the dorsal thorax area. (credit: Jane Whitney)

Most crustaceans are dioecious, which means that the sexes are separate. Some species like barnacles may be hermaphrodites. Serial hermaphroditism, where the gonad can switch from producing sperm to ova, may also be seen in some species. Fertilized eggs may be held within the female of the species or may be released in the water. Terrestrial crustaceans seek out damp spaces in their habitats to lay eggs.

Larval stages—nauplius and zoea—are seen in the early development of crustaceans. A cypris larva is also seen in the early development of barnacles (Figure 6). Crustaceans possess a tripartite brain and two compound eyes. Most crustaceans are carnivorous, but herbivorous and detritivorous species are also known. Crustaceans may also be cannibalistic when extremely high populations of these organisms are present.

Micrograph a shows a shrimp nauplius larva, which has a teardrop-shaped body with tentacles and long, frilly arms at the wide end. Micrograph b shows a barnacle cypris larva, which is similar in shape to a clam. Micrograph c shows green crab zoea larva, which resembles a shrimp.

Figure 6. All crustaceans go through different larval stages. Shown are (a) the nauplius larval stage of a tadpole shrimp, (b) the cypris larval stage of a barnacle, and (c) the zoea larval stage of a green crab. (credit a: modification of work by USGS; credit b: modification of work by Mª. C. Mingorance Rodríguez; credit c: modification of work by B. Kimmel based on original work by Ernst Haeckel)

Subphylum Chelicerata

The photo shows a black, shiny scorpion with very large chelicerae, or pincers.

Figure 7. The chelicerae (first set of appendages) are well developed in the scorpion. (credit: Kevin Walsh)

This subphylum includes animals such as spiders, scorpions, horseshoe crabs, and sea spiders. This subphylum is predominantly terrestrial, although some marine species also exist. An estimated 77,000 species are included in subphylum Chelicerata. Chelicerates are found in almost all habitats.

The body of chelicerates may be divided into two parts: prosoma and opisthosoma, which are basically the equivalents of cephalothorax (usually smaller) and abdomen (usually larger). A “head” tagmum is not usually discernible.

The phylum derives its name from the first pair of appendages: the chelicerae (Figure 7), which are specialized, claw-like or fang-like mouthparts. These animals do not possess antennae. The second pair of appendages is known as pedipalps. In some species, like sea spiders, an additional pair of appendages, called ovigers, is present between the chelicerae and pedipalps.

The photo shows a spider with a thick, hairy body and eight long legs.

Figure 8. The trapdoor spider, like all spiders, is a member of the subphylum Chelicerata. (credit: Marshal Hedin)

Chelicerae are mostly used for feeding, but in spiders, these are often modified into fangs that inject venom into their prey before feeding (Figure 8). Members of this subphylum have an open circulatory system with a heart that pumps blood into the hemocoel. Aquatic species have gills, whereas terrestrial species have either trachea or book lungs for gaseous exchange.

Most chelicerates ingest food using a preoral cavity formed by the chelicerae and pedipalps. Some chelicerates may secrete digestive enzymes to pre-digest food before ingesting it. Parasitic chelicerates like ticks and mites have evolved blood-sucking apparatuses.

The nervous system in chelicerates consists of a brain and two ventral nerve cords. These animals use external fertilization as well as internal fertilization strategies for reproduction, depending upon the species and its habitat. Parental care for the young ranges from absolutely none to relatively prolonged care.

Visit this lesson on arthropods, including interactive habitat maps, and more.

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