Chordates: Features, Groups & Characteristics

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jayne Yenko

Jayne has taught health/nutrition and education at the college level and has a master's degree in education.

Chordata is a group of related vertebrates and invertebrates. How can vertebrates and invertebrates be related? They appear to be very different. Read on to find out.


Most of us are familiar with several of the animals that make up the phylum, or division, Chordata, meaning 'cord,' because it includes humans and many other vertebrates, such as cats and dogs, and they live in marine, freshwater, and land habitats all over the world. Chordates are animals who are vertebrates (having a backbone) or closely related invertebrates (lacking a backbone). Vertebrates and invertebrates, you say? What makes them related? Good question. Let's find out.

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Fishes and Sharks: Origins of Jaws in Vertebrates

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Chordates
  • 0:31 Features
  • 1:34 Groups
  • 4:01 Classification
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed


If we were to compare a sea squirt and a polar bear, we wouldn't find much in common, would we? The sea squirt is mostly just a mass of transparent jelly with no brain and no sensory organs, and a polar bear has four legs, fur, and excellent senses of smell, eyesight, and hearing. How could they possibly be related?

Well, all chordates have the following features at some point in their lives. Generally, that point is during the embryonic stage (developmental). Many of these features disappear in the adult stage, as in our example of the sea squirt and the polar bear.

  • Gill slits - these appear in the throat and show the aquatic ancestry of the chordates
  • Dorsal nerve cord - this cord contains nerve fibers and develops into the spinal cord and brain
  • Notochord - consisting of cartilage, this is the ancient version of the vertebra or backbone
  • Post-anal tail

Let's find out what groups make up the Chordata phylum.


The Chordata share many developmental features, which is how they are grouped. As embryos, they are quite similar, however, these animals are very different from each other as adults. Because of this, the Chordata are divided into three sub-phyla (sub-divisions). These are the Tunicate, the Cephalochordata, and the Craniata.

The Tunicata, meaning 'tunic,' have no brain. The larvae have both a notochord and a nerve cord, which both disappear in the adults. The larvae look similar to tadpoles. As they mature, they lose the ability to swim and anchor themselves to a rock or similar hard surface. The adult looks like a bag enclosed in a slightly harder covering (the tunic) with two siphons for water to enter and exit. As the water circulates through this bag body, food is filtered out, and the water is squirted back into the sea. These are referred to as sea squirts. The free-floating ones are called salps.

The Cephalochordata (cephalo meaning 'head' and chordata meaning 'cord') also have no brain, although they do have a notochord and a nerve cord and very simple circulatory systems. There are about 25 species of Cephalochordata. They are small and eel-like. They are often called lancelets because of the shape of their bodies. They prefer coastal waters of the tropical and temperate areas of the world. They burrow into the sand in shallow waters where there is a current bringing food they can grab with their tentacles.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it now
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account