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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Immunolocalization of serotonin in Onychophora argues against segmental ganglia being an ancestral feature of arthropods

Georg Mayer1* and Steffen Harzsch2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia

2 Department of Evolutionary Neuroethology, Max-Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Hans-Knöll-Straße 8, D-07745 Jena, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:118  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-118

Published: 15 July 2007



Onychophora (velvet worms) represent the most basal arthropod group and play a pivotal role in the current discussion on the evolution of nervous systems and segmentation in arthropods. Although there is a wealth of information on the immunolocalization of serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, 5-HT) in various euarthropods, as yet no comparable localization data are available for Onychophora. In order to understand how the onychophoran nervous system compares to that of other arthropods, we studied the distribution of serotonin-like immunoreactive neurons and histological characteristics of ventral nerve cords in Metaperipatus blainvillei (Onychophora, Peripatopsidae) and Epiperipatus biolleyi (Onychophora, Peripatidae).


We demonstrate that paired leg nerves are the only segmental structures associated with the onychophoran nerve cord. Although the median commissures and peripheral nerves show a repeated pattern, their arrangement is independent from body segments characterized by the position of legs and associated structures. Moreover, the somata of serotonin-like immunoreactive neurons do not show any ordered arrangement in both species studied but are instead scattered throughout the entire length of each nerve cord. We observed neither a serially iterated nor a bilaterally symmetric pattern, which is in contrast to the strictly segmental arrangement of serotonergic neurons in other arthropods.


Our histological findings and immunolocalization experiments highlight the medullary organization of the onychophoran nerve cord and argue against segmental ganglia of the typical euarthropodan type being an ancestral feature of Onychophora. These results contradict a priori assumptions of segmental ganglia being an ancestral feature of arthropods and, thus, weaken the traditional Articulata hypothesis, which proposes a sistergroup relationship of Annelida and Arthropoda.