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Lancelet (Branchiostoma lanceolatum)
Lancelet (Branchiostoma lanceolatum)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Cephalochordata
Owen, 1846
Class: Leptocardii


The lancelets (subphylum Cephalochordata, traditionally known as amphioxus) are a group of primitive chordates. They are usually found buried in sand in shallow parts of temperate or tropical seas. In Asia, they are harvested commercially for food for humans and domesticated animals. They are an important object of study in zoology as they provide indications about the origins of the vertebrates.

Physical features

Lancelets grow up to about five centimetres long, reaching eight centimetres at the longest. In common with vertebrates, lancelets have a nerve cord running along the back, pharyngeal slits and a tail that runs past the anus. Also like vertebrates, the muscles are arranged in blocks called myomeres. Unlike vertebrates, the dorsal nerve cord is not protected by bone but by a simpler notochord made up of a cylinder of cells that are closely-packed to form a toughened rod. The lancelet notochord, unlike the vertebrate spine, extends into the head. This gives the subphylum its name (cephalo- meaning 'relating to the head'). Lancelets also have oral cirri, thin tentacle-like strands that hang in front of the mouth and act as sensory devices and as a filter for the water passing into the body. The water exits the body via the atriopore.


  1. brain-like blister
  2. notochord
  3. dorsal nerve cord
  4. post-anal tail
  5. anus
  6. food canal
  7. circulatory system
  8. atriopore
  9. overpharynx lacuna
  10. gill slit
  11. pharynx
  12. vestibule
  13. oral cirri
  14. mouth opening
  15. gonads (ovary/testicle)
  16. light sensor
  17. nerves
  18. metapleural fold
  19. hepatic caecum (liver-like sack)


Cephalochordata is traditionally seen as a sister subphylum to the vertebrates, with whom they are grouped together as a sister group (sometimes called Notochordata) to the simpler still Urochordata. But newer research suggests this may not be the case. Urochordates may be the sister group of the vertebrates, while Cephalochordata may be the most basal subphylum of the chordates. The asymmetric nature of juveniles is unique to the cephalochordates and indicates (as do certain other features, including the seriated gonads) that lancelets are, at least, more derived than would be expected of a "living fossil" representative of basal chordates.

The following are the species recognised by ITIS. Other sources (see for instance Tudge) show that there might be up to thirty species.

  • Family Asymmetronidae
    • Genus Asymmetron
      • Asymmetron lucayanum
      • Asymmetron maldivense
    • Genus Epigonichthys
  • Family Branchiostomidae
    • Genus Branchiostoma
      • Branchiostoma belcheri
      • Branchiostoma californiense
      • Branchiostoma capense
      • Branchiostoma caribaeum
      • Branchiostoma floridae
      • Branchiostoma lanceolatum
      • Branchiostoma valdiviae
      • Branchiostoma virginiae
Wikispecies has information related to:

In music

Folk musician and marine biologist Sam Hinton performed a song written in 1921 by Philip H. Pope about Amphioxus entitled It's a Long Way from Amphioxus. Sung to the tune of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," the ditty references now-disputed notions about the place of cephalochordates in the chordate evolutionary timeline:

It's a long way from Amphioxus,
It's a long way to us,
It's a long way from Amphioxus
To the meanest human cuss.
It's good-bye, fins and gill-slits,
Welcome, lungs and hair!
It's a long, long way from Amphioxus,
But we all came from there.




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