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Greek arthron, joint; pous, foot

Members of the phylum Arthropoda are distinguished by having segmented bodies and segmented appendages. The bodies of most arthropods are made of two or three distinct parts — a cephalum (head), a thorax (chest), and an abdomen. They have a hardened external skeleton, often called the exoskeleton, made of the nitrogen-rich polysaccharide chitin. As the animal outgrows the exoskeleton, it is shed and a new one is regenerated. Many arthropods metamorphose: the egg develops into a larval form that differs considerably from the sexually mature adult. Although arthropods range in size from 100 µm to 60 cm long, most adults are about 1 mm long.

In number of species, the phylum Arthropoda is by far the largest in the animal kingdom. Nearly half a million species of insects alone have been described; some zoologists feel that if the tropical groups were better known there might be as many as 10 million living species of insects.

Arthropods are of great economic importance. Most fruit trees and many crop vegetables rely on insects for pollination. Insects and other arthropods are crucial predators of plant pests and other noxious species. Many cause diseases of plants by transmitting pathogenic fungi and bacteria. Others transmit human pathogens, such as those that cause trypanosomiasis and malaria. Arthropods are crucial sources of nutrient for many other animals — and indeed, for some carnivorous plants. Seafood that is not mollusk or fish is generally arthropod.

There are three great groups, subphyla or superclasses, of living arthropods: Crustacea, Uniramia, and Chelicerata. In the Chelicerata, the first two body regions are combined into a single cephalothorax; other arthropods have three distinct body parts.

The Crustacea includes the aquatic gill-breathing crustaceans, whose major members are the water fleas, fairy shrimp and tadpole shrimp (Branchiopoda), ostracods (Ostracoda) copepods (Copepoda), and the barnacles (Cirripedia). All of these classes have a bivalved carapace, called a straca. Crustaceans, belonging to class Malacostraca, are primarily marine organisms, although a few species live in fresh water or on land. Amphipods and isopods lack a carapace and have flattened bodies. Most are marine (for example, beach fleas), although the common pill bug or sow bug is an isopod that lives on land, in moist soil litter under fallen logs and stones. In the order Decapoda, the entire cephalothorax is covered by the carapace. Lobster, crayfish, crabs, and shrimp are all decapods.

There are five classes in the subphylum Uniramia: the Diplopoda (millipedes), the Chilopoda (centipedes), the Pauropoda (centipede-like animals having branched antennae and nine or ten pairs of legs), the Symphyla (also similar to centipedes but having from 10 to 12 pairs of legs), and the Insecta, by far the largest class of the Uniramia.

Insects have three pairs of legs, three body sections, generally one or two pairs of wings, and one pair of antennae. There are some 25 orders of insects, and more than 600 families. Suffice it here to mention some major orders: Collembola (springtails), which some zoologists raise to class status, Isoptera (termites), Ephemeroptera (mayflies), Odonata (dragonflies), Orthoptera (grasshoppers, roaches, and crickets), Hemiptera (true bugs), Homoptera (cicadas and aphids), Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), Diptera (flies), Siphonaptera (fleas), Hymenoptera (ants, wasps, bees, and chalcids), and Coleoptera (beetles), which contains more than 290,000 described species.

Most members of the subphylum Chelicerata have six pairs of appendages, of which the first two differ from each other. The first pair, called chelicerae, are grasping and jaw-like; the second pair are usually feeler-like or claw-like; the third and other more posterior pairs are usually leg-like. Unlike other arthropods, chelicerates lack sensory antennae. They include the classes Pycnogonida (sea spiders), Merostomata (horseshoe crabs), and Arachnida (scorpions, daddy-long-legs or harvestmen, spiders, and the mites and ticks of the order Acarina). Nearly all the arachnids have four pairs of segmented legs. Most are carnivorous; many prey on insects. They play an important role in the balance of nature.

Apparently, the insects arose in the late Paleozoic Era — by 200 million years ago, modern cockroaches lived and were fossilized. The phylum Arthropoda itself appeared far earlier; indeed, some fossils of simple joint-footed animals have been seen in Ediacaran (upper Proterozoic) rocks.

Some contend that arthropods are polyphyletic, based, for example, on their rich variety of life cycles.

From: Margulis and Schwartz, 1988

Phylum Arthropoda