Electrophysiology and Behavior of Cnidarian Nervous Systems

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Although the Cnidaria have evolved a wide range of body forms matched with an equally varied neural anatomy, individual species exhibit common patterns of behavior. For example, in all species a key challenge for the nervous system is to transfer food from the peripherally mounted tentacles to the centrally located stomach. Foraging movements, necessary to maintain the food supply, must be accomplished in such a way as to avoid interference with the primary objective of getting prey into the mouth. Furthermore, the hunt for prey must be balanced by a measured response to “threat.” Different species respond to threat in markedly different ways, but in each case foraging is inhibited, just as it is during transmission of food.

One hundred years ago, G. H. Parker questioned whether a centralized or a locally organized nervous system could best account for sea anemone behavior. Anatomical and electrophysiological studies now suggest that in most Cnidaria there is a degree of hierarchical control, with local reflexes coordinated by more condensed systems of neurons. This organization is highly developed in the nerve rings of hydrozoan medusae and takes the form of ganglion-like rhopalia in the Cubozoa. Even in hydrozoan polyps such as Hydra there are at least four separate neuronal systems. It is likely that the underlying mechanisms (containing both homologous and analogous elements) will be best revealed by a comparative approach that directly relates behavior with its molecular basis. Useful examples include comparisons between sea anemones with and without through-conducting systems; between hydra with and without oral rings; between medusae with and without coordinated escape swimming. Recent advances in transgenomic labeling have shown the way forward.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Research Encyclopedia of Neuroscience
PublisherOxford University Press, New York
Number of pages58
ISBN (Electronic) http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264086.013.146
Publication statusPublished - 2019

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