Deuterostomes (taxonomic term: Deuterostomia; from the Greek: "second mouth") are a superphylum of animals. They are a subtaxon of the Bilateria branch of the subregnum Eumetazoa, and are opposed to the protostomes. Deuterostomes are distinguished by their embryonic development; in deuterostomes, the first opening (the blastopore) becomes the anus, while in protostomes it becomes the mouth.
There are four living phyla of deuterostomes:
In both deuterostomes and protostomes, a zygote first develops into a hollow ball of cells, called a blastula. In deuterostomes, the early divisions occur parallel or perpendicular to the polar axis. This is called radial cleavage, and also occurs in certain protostomes, such as the lophophorates. Most deuterostomes display indeterminate cleavage, in which the developmental fate of the cells in the developing embryo are not determined by the identity of the parent cell. Thus if the first four cells are separated, each cell is capable of forming a complete small larva, and if a cell is removed from the blastula the other cells will compensate.
Both the Hemichordata and Chordata have gill slits, and primitive fossil echinoderms also show signs of gill slits. A hollow nerve cord is found in all chordates, including tunicates (in the larval stage). Some hemichordates also have a tubular nerve cord. In the early embryonic stage it looks like the hollow nerve cord of chordates. Because of the degenerated nervous system of echinoderms it is not possible to discern much about their ancestors in this matter, but based on different facts it is quite possible that all the present deuterostomes evolved from a common ancestor which had gill slits, a hollow nerve cord and a segmented body. It could have resembled the small group of Cambrian deuterostomes named Vetulicolia.
Fossils of one major deuterostome group, the echinoderms (whose modern members include starfish, sea urchins and crinoids) are quite common from the start of the Cambrian, . The Mid Cambrian fossil Rhabdotubus johanssoni has been interpreted as a pterobranch hemichordate. Opinions differ about whether the Chengjiang fauna fossil Yunnanozoon , from the earlier Cambrian, was a hemichordate or chordate. Another Chenjiang fossil, Haikouella lanceolata, also from the Chengjiang fauna, is interpreted as a chordate and possibly a craniate, as it shows signs of a heart, arteries, gill filaments, a tail, a neural chord with a brain at the front end, and possibly eyes - although it also had short tentacles round its mouth. Haikouichthys and Myllokunmingia, also from the Chenjiang fauna, are regarded as fish. Pikaia, discovered much earlier but from the Mid Cambrian Burgess Shale, is also regarded as a primitive chordate. On the other hand fossils of early chordates are very rare, since non-vertebrate chordates have no bones or teeth, and none have been reported for the rest of the Cambrian.