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Annelida is a group commonly referred to as segmented worms, and they are found worldwide from the deepest marine sediments to the soils in our city parks and yards. Through most of the 20th century Annelida was split into three major groups; Polychaeta, Oligochaeta (earthworms etc.) and Hirudinea (leeches). Earthworms and leeches are the familiar annelids for most people, but polychaetes comprise the bulk of the diversity of Annelida and are found in nearly every marine habitat, from intertidal algal mats downwards. There are even pelagic polychaetes that swim or drift, preying on other plankton, and a few groups occurring in fresh water and moist terrestrial surroundings. Around 9000 species of polychaetes are currently recognized with several thousand more names in synonymy, and the overall systematics of the group remains unstable (Rouse and Pleijel, 2001).


It is now recognized that Oligochaeta and Hirudinea, comprised of several thousand species, form a clade and should be referred to either as Oligochaeta (Siddall et al., 2001) or Clitellata (Martin, 2001). Moreover, it is possible that this group may well belong inside Polychaeta, thus making Polychaeta synonymous with Annelida (McHugh, 1997; Westheide, 1997; Westheide et al., 1999). Echiura (spoon worms), at one time regarded as an annelid group (Sedgwick, 1898), has been excluded from Annelida for many years (Newby, 1940). Evidence now suggests they are in fact annelids (Hessling and Westheide, 2002; McHugh, 1997), though their placement within the group is unresolved. The former phyla Pogonophora and Vestimentifera have also recently become regarded as a single, clearly annelid, group (Bartolomaeus, 1995; Nielsen, 1995; Rouse and Fauchald, 1995), and are now known by the original name, Siboglinidae (see Rouse and Fauchald , 1997 and McHugh 1997). Undoubted annelid fossils, such as Canadia, are known from the Burgess Shale deposits. 


Until relatively recently the most commonly used system to divide polychaetes was as 'Errantia' and 'Sedentaria'. This was essentially a system of convenience with no real intention of depicting evolutionary relationships. This classification was supplanted in the 1960s and 1970s by ones which split polychaetes into as many as 22 orders with no explicit linkage between them (Fauchald and Rouse, 1997). A recent cladistic analysis of Annelida and other groups has resulted in a new classification of polychaetes (Rouse and Fauchald, 1997), with the group split into two main clades Scolecida and Palpata. Scolecida is a small group of less than 1000 named species, and these worms are all burrowers of one form or another, with bodies reminiscent of earthworms. Palpata comprises the vast majority of polychaetes and is divided into Aciculata and Canalipalpata. Aciculata contains about half of the polychaete species and largely encompasses the old taxonomic group Errantia. Representatives of this lineage are characterized by having internal supporting chaetae, or aciculae, in the parapodia. It includes major groups such as Phyllodocida and Eunicida, which tend to be mobile forms with well developed eyes and parapodia for rapid locomotion. Canalipalpata, a group with more than 5000 named species, is distinguished by having long grooved palp structures that are used for feeding. Canalipalpata is divided into Sabellida, Spionida and Terebellida. Most of these groups’ members live in tubes and use their palps to feed in various ways.




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