A tunicate is a marine invertebrate animal, a member of the subphylum Tunicata. It is part of the Chordata, a phylum which includes all animals with dorsal nerve cords and notochords. The subphylum was at one time called Urochordata, and the term urochordates is still sometimes used for these animals. They are the only chordates that have lost their myomeric segmentation, with the possible exception of the seriation of the gill slits.
Various common names are used for different species. Sea tulips are tunicates with colourful bodies supported on slender stalks. Sea squirts are so named because of their habit of contracting their bodies sharply and squirting out water when disturbed. Sea liver and sea pork get their names from the resemblance of their dead colonies to pieces of meat.
Three enigmatic species were also found from the Ediacaran period Ausia fenestrata from the Nama Group of Namibia, the sac-like Yarnemia acidiformis, and one from a second new Ausia-like genus from the Onega Peninsula of northern Russia, Burykhia hunti. Results of a new study have shown possible affinity of these Ediacaran organisms to the ascidians. Ausia and Burykhia lived in shallow coastal waters slightly more than 555 to 548 million years ago, and are believed to be the oldest evidence of the chordate lineage of metazoans. The Russian Precambrian fossil Yarnemia is identified as a tunicate only tentatively, because its fossils are nowhere near as well-preserved as those of Ausia and Burykhia, so this identification has been questioned.
Colonies of tunicates occur in a range of forms, and vary in the degree to which individual organisms, known as zooids, integrate with one another. In the simplest systems, the individual animals are widely separated, but linked together by horizontal connections called stolons, which grow along the seabed. Other species have the zooids growing closer together in a tuft or clustered together and sharing a common base. The most advanced colonies involve the integration of the zooids into a common structure surrounded by the tunic. These may have separate buccal siphons and a single central atrial siphon and may be organized into larger systems, with hundreds of star-shaped units. Often, the zooids in a colony are tiny but very numerous, and the colonies can form large encrusting or mat-like patches.
Tunicates have a well-developed heart and circulatory system. The heart is a double U-shaped tube situated just below the gut. The blood vessels are simple connective tissue tubes, and their blood has several types of corpuscle. The blood may appear pale green, but this is not due to any respiratory pigments, and oxygen is transported dissolved in the plasma. Exact details of the circulatory system are unclear, but the gut, pharynx, gills, gonads, and nervous system seem to be arranged in series rather than in parallel, as happens in most other animals. Every few minutes, the heart stops beating and then restarts, pumping fluid in the reverse direction.
Adult tunicates have a hollow cerebral ganglion, equivalent to a brain, and a hollow structure known as a neural gland. Both originate from the embryonic neural tube and are located between the two siphons. Nerves arise from the two ends of the ganglion; those from the anterior end innervate the buccal siphon and those from the posterior end supply the rest of the body, the atrial siphon, organs, gut and the musculature of the body wall. There are no sense organs but there are sensory cells on the siphons, the buccal tentacles and in the atrium.
Some ascidians that live on soft sediments are detritivores. A few deepwater species, such as Megalodicopia hians, are sit-and-wait predators, trapping tiny crustacea, nematodes, and other small invertebrates with the muscular lobes which surround their buccal siphons. Certain tropical species in the family Didemnidae have symbiotic green algae or cyanobacteria in their tunics, and one of these symbionts, Prochloron, is unique to tunicates. Excess photosynthetic products are assumed to be available to the host.
Larvaceans only reproduce sexually. They are protandrous hermaphrodites, except for Oikopleura dioica which is gonochoric, and a larva resembles the tadpole larva of ascidians. Once the trunk is fully developed, the larva undergoes "tail shift", in which the tail moves from a rearward position to a ventral orientation and twists through 90 relative to the trunk. The larva consists of a small, fixed number of cells, and grows by enlargement of these rather than cell division. Development is very rapid and only takes seven hours for a zygote to develop into a house-building juvenile starting to feed.