Temporal range: 270–0 Ma[1] Possible Ordovician and Devonian records[2]
Bedford's Flatworm.jpg
Bedford's flatworm, Pseudobiceros bedfordi
Scientific classification e
Claus, 1887



  • Plathelminthes Schneider, 1873[3]

The flatworms, flat worms, Platyhelminthes, Plathelminthes, or platyhelminths (from the Greek πλατύ, platy, meaning "flat" and ἕλμινς (root: ἑλμινθ-), helminth-, meaning "worm")[3] are a phylum of relatively simple bilaterian, unsegmented, soft-bodied invertebrates. Unlike other bilaterians, they are acoelomates (having no body cavity), and have no specialized circulatory and respiratory organs, which restricts them to having flattened shapes that allow oxygen and nutrients to pass through their bodies by diffusion. The digestive cavity has only one opening for both ingestion (intake of nutrients) and egestion (removal of undigested wastes); as a result, the food cannot be processed continuously.

In traditional medicinal texts, Platyhelminthes are divided into Turbellaria, which are mostly non-parasitic animals such as planarians, and three entirely parasitic groups: Cestoda, Trematoda and Monogenea; however, since the turbellarians have since been proven not to be monophyletic, this classification is now deprecated. Free-living flatworms are mostly predators, and live in water or in shaded, humid terrestrial environments, such as leaf litter. Cestodes (tapeworms) and trematodes (flukes) have complex life-cycles, with mature stages that live as parasites in the digestive systems of fish or land vertebrates, and intermediate stages that infest secondary hosts. The eggs of trematodes are excreted from their main hosts, whereas adult cestodes generate vast numbers of hermaphroditic, segment-like proglottids that detach when mature, are excreted, and then release eggs. Unlike the other parasitic groups, the monogeneans are external parasites infesting aquatic animals, and their larvae metamorphose into the adult form after attaching to a suitable host.

Because they do not have internal body cavities, Platyhelminthes were regarded as a primitive stage in the evolution of bilaterians (animals with bilateral symmetry and hence with distinct front and rear ends). However, analyses since the mid-1980s have separated out one subgroup, the Acoelomorpha, as basal bilaterians—closer to the original bilaterians than to any other modern groups. The remaining Platyhelminthes form a monophyletic group, one that contains all and only descendants of a common ancestor that is itself a member of the group. The redefined Platyhelminthes is part of the Lophotrochozoa, one of the three main groups of more complex bilaterians. These analyses had concluded the redefined Platyhelminthes, excluding Acoelomorpha, consists of two monophyletic subgroups, Catenulida and Rhabditophora, with Cestoda, Trematoda and Monogenea forming a monophyletic subgroup within one branch of the Rhabditophora. Hence, the traditional platyhelminth subgroup "Turbellaria" is now regarded as paraphyletic, since it excludes the wholly parasitic groups, although these are descended from one group of "turbellarians".

Two planarian species have been used successfully in the Philippines, Indonesia, Hawaii, New Guinea, and Guam to control populations of the imported giant African snail Achatina fulica, which was displacing native snails. However, there is now concern that these planarians may themselves become a serious threat to native snails. In northwest Europe, there are concerns about the spread of the New Zealand planarian Arthurdendyus triangulatus, which preys on earthworms.


Varied flatworm species from Kunstformen der Natur (1904), plate 75

Distinguishing features

Platyhelminthes are bilaterally symmetrical animals: their left and right sides are mirror images of each other; this also implies they have distinct top and bottom surfaces and distinct head and tail ends. Like other bilaterians, they have three main cell layers (endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm),[4] while the radially symmetrical cnidarians and ctenophores (comb jellies) have only two cell layers.[5] Beyond that, they are "defined more by what they do not have than by any particular series of specializations."[6] Unlike other bilaterians, Platyhelminthes have no internal body cavity, so are described as acoelomates. They also lack specialized circulatory and respiratory organs, both of these facts are defining features when classifying a flatworm's anatomy.[4][7] Their bodies are soft and unsegmented.[8]

Attribute Cnidarians and Ctenophores[5] Platyhelminthes (flatworms)[4][7] More "advanced" bilaterians[9]
Bilateral symmetry No Yes
Number of main cell layers Two, with jelly-like layer between them Three
Distinct brain No Yes
Specialized digestive system No Yes
Specialized excretory system No Yes
Body cavity containing internal organs No Yes
Specialized circulatory and respiratory organs No Yes

Features common to all subgroups

The lack of circulatory and respiratory organs limits platyhelminths to sizes and shapes that enable oxygen to reach and carbon dioxide to leave all parts of their bodies by simple diffusion. Hence, many are microscopic and the large species have flat ribbon-like or leaf-like shapes. The guts of large species have many branches, allowing nutrients to diffuse to all parts of the body.[6] Respiration through the whole surface of the body makes them vulnerable to fluid loss, and restricts them to environments where dehydration is unlikely: sea and freshwater, moist terrestrial environments such as leaf litter or between grains of soil, and as parasites within other animals.[4]

The space between the skin and gut is filled with mesenchyme, a connective tissue made of cells and reinforced by collagen fibers that act as a type of skeleton, providing attachment points for muscles. The mesenchyme contains all the internal organs and allows the passage of oxygen, nutrients and waste products. It consists of two main types of cell: fixed cells, some of which have fluid-filled vacuoles; and stem cells, which can transform into any other type of cell, and are used in regenerating tissues after injury or asexual reproduction.[4]

Most platyhelminths have no anus and regurgitate undigested material through the mouth. However, some long species have an anus and some with complex, branched guts have more than one anus, since excretion only through the mouth would be difficult for them.[7] The gut is lined with a single layer of endodermal cells that absorb and digest food. Some species break up and soften food first by secreting enzymes in the gut or pharynx (throat).[4]

All animals need to keep the concentration of dissolved substances in their body fluids at a fairly constant level. Internal parasites and free-living marine animals live in environments with high concentrations of dissolved material, and generally let their tissues have the same level of concentration as the environment, while freshwater animals need to prevent their body fluids from becoming too dilute. Despite this difference in environments, most platyhelminths use the same system to control the concentration of their body fluids. Flame cells, so called because the beating of their flagella looks like a flickering candle flame, extract from the mesenchyme water that contains wastes and some reusable material, and drive it into networks of tube cells which are lined with flagella and microvilli. The tube cells' flagella drive the water towards exits called nephridiopores, while their microvilli reabsorb reusable materials and as much water as is needed to keep the body fluids at the right concentration. These combinations of flame cells and tube cells are called protonephridia.[4][9]

In all platyhelminths, the nervous system is concentrated at the head end. This is least marked in the acoels, which have nerve nets rather like those of cnidarians and ctenophores, but densest around the head. Other platyhelminths have rings of ganglia in the head and main nerve trunks running along their bodies.[4][7]