Open Access Research article

Evolutionary diversification of secondary mechanoreceptor cells in tunicata

Francesca Rigon1, Thomas Stach2, Federico Caicci1, Fabio Gasparini1*, Paolo Burighel1 and Lucia Manni1

Author Affiliations

1 Dipartimento di Biologia, Università degli Studi di Padova, via U. Bassi 58/B, I-35121, Padova, Italy

2 Institut für Biologie, AG Vergleichende Zoologie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Philippstr. 13, Haus 2, D-10115, Berlin, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:112  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-112

Published: 4 June 2013



Hair cells are vertebrate secondary sensory cells located in the ear and in the lateral line organ. Until recently, these cells were considered to be mechanoreceptors exclusively found in vertebrates that evolved within this group. Evidence of secondary mechanoreceptors in some tunicates, the proposed sister group of vertebrates, has recently led to the hypothesis that vertebrate and tunicate secondary sensory cells share a common origin. Secondary sensory cells were described in detail in two tunicate groups, ascidians and thaliaceans, in which they constitute an oral sensory structure called the coronal organ. Among thaliaceans, the organ is absent in salps and it has been hypothesised that this condition is due to a different feeding system adopted by this group of animals. No information is available as to whether a comparable structure exists in the third group of tunicates, the appendicularians, although different sensory structures are known to be present in these animals.


We studied the detailed morphology of appendicularian oral mechanoreceptors. Using light and electron microscopy we could demonstrate that the mechanosensory organ called the circumoral ring is composed of secondary sensory cells. We described the ultrastructure of the circumoral organ in two appendicularian species, Oikopleura dioica and Oikopleura albicans, and thus taxonomically completed the data collection of tunicate secondary sensory cells. To understand the evolution of secondary sensory cells in tunicates, we performed a cladistic analysis using morphological data. We constructed a matrix consisting of 19 characters derived from detailed ultrastructural studies in 16 tunicate species and used a cephalochordate and three vertebrate species as outgroups.


Our study clearly shows that the circumoral ring is the appendicularian homologue of the coronal organ of other tunicate taxa. The cladistic analysis enabled us to reconstruct the features of the putative ancestral hair cell in tunicates, represented by a simple monociliated cell. This cell successively differentiated into the current variety of oral mechanoreceptors in the various tunicate lineages. Finally, we demonstrated that the inferred evolutionary changes coincide with major transitions in the feeding strategies in each respective lineage.

Cladistic analysis; Oikopleura albicans; Oikopleura dioica; Sensory cells