planarian, common name for several genera of the free-living (turbellarian) flatworms belonging to the order Tricladida, a name that derives from their characteristic three-branched digestive cavities. Most species range from 1/8 in. to about 1 in. in length (.32-2.54 cm) although some giant tropical forms range up to 2 ft. (60 cm). The different species are white, gray, brown, or black; a few forms are transparent. Many are striped or streaked and some of the large terrestrial species are brightly colored. Although planarians can be found in marine or moist terrestrial habitats, most inhabit freshwater areas. They crawl about over a trail of mucus that is secreted by specialized epidermal cells; the smaller forms move about by means of cilia on their ventral, or lower, surface, and larger species utilize muscular contractions as well. Tactile and chemoreceptive cells, located in the epidermis, serve as general sense organs. In many species these cells are clumped in lobes at the sides of the head. Most planarians are also light-sensitive and in some, pigmented light-sensitive cells are clumped in two cups that serve as primitive eyes. Planarians are usually either carnivorous or scavengers. The mouth is located near the middle of the ventral surface. The tubelike pharynx can be everted from the mouth and inserted into the prey; food is partially digested externally before it is sucked into the gut. Planarians are hermaphroditic; each individual worm contains both male and female organs, and, most commonly, they reproduce sexually. However, species similar to the 1/2-in.-long (1.27-cm) Dugesia tigrina, the most common planarian in the United States, are much studied in classrooms and laboratories for their additional capacity to reproduce asexually by transverse rupture of the body: a rupture line develops behind the mouth, and while the back half of the worm is anchored, the front half moves forward until the worm snaps in half. Each half regenerates the missing parts. Such planarians can also regenerate parts that are cut from the body. Planarians are classified in the phylum Platyhelminthes, class Turbellaria, order Tricladida.

Planaria are nonparasitic flatworms (which make great pets) of the biological family Planariidae, belonging to the order Seriata. Planaria are common to many parts of the world, living in both saltwater and freshwater ponds and rivers. Some are terrestrial and are found on plants in humid areas. These animals move by beating cilia on the ventral dermis, allowing them to glide along on a film of mucus. Some move by undulations of the whole body by the contractions of muscles built into the body wall.

They exhibit an extraordinary ability to regenerate lost body parts. For example, a planarian split lengthwise or crosswise will regenerate into two separate individuals. The size ranges from 3 to 12 mm, and the body has two eye-spots (also known as ocelli) that can detect the intensity of light. The eye-spots act as photoreceptors and are used to move away from light sources. Planaria have three germ layers (ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm), and are acoelomate (i.e. they have a solid body with no body cavity). They have a single-opening digestive tract, consisting of one anterior branch and two posterior branches in freshwater planarians. Because of this three-branched organization, freshwater flatworms are often referred to as triclad planarians.

The most frequently used in the high school and first-year college laboratories is the brownish Dugesia tigrina. Other common varieties are the blackish Planaria maculata and Dugesia dorotocephala. Recently, however, the species Schmidtea mediterranea has emerged as the species of choice for modern molecular biological and genomic research due to its diploid chromosomes and existence in both asexual and sexual strains. Recent genetic screens utilizing double-stranded RNA technology have uncovered 240 genes that affect regeneration in S. mediterranea. Interestingly, many of these genes are found in the human genome.

It should be noted that the term "planaria" is most often used as a common name. It is also the name of a genus within the family Planariidae. Sometimes, it also refers to the genus Dugesia.

Anatomy and physiology

The planarian has very simple organ systems. The digestive system consists of a mouth, pharynx, and a structure called a gastrovascular cavity. The mouth is located in the center of the underside of the body. Digestive enzymes secrete from mouth to begin external digestion. The pharynx connects the mouth to the gastrovascular cavity. This structure branches throughout the body allowing nutrients from food to reach all extremities. They eat living or dead small animals that they suck with their muscular mouth. From there, the food passes through the pharynx into the intestines and digesting of the food takes place in the cells lining the intestine, which then diffuses to the rest of the body. Planare receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide by diffusion. The excretory system is made of many tubes with many flame cells and excretory pores on them. Flame cells remove unwanted liquids from the body by passing them through ducts that lead to excretory pores where the waste is released on the dorsal surface of the planarian. At the head of the planarian there is a ganglion under the eyespots. From the ganglion there are two nerve cords which connect at the tail. There are many transverse nerves connected to the nerve cords which make it look like a ladder. With a ladder-like nerve system, it is able to respond in a coordinated manner.


Planaria are hermaphrodites, possessing both testes and ovaries. Thus, they can reproduce asexually with their own gametes or sexually with another planarian. In asexual reproduction, the planarian detaches its tail end and each half regrows the lost parts by regeneration. However several problems can occur with this, so this does not happen very often. Instead, in sexual reproduction, each planarian transports its excretion to the other planarian, giving and receiving sperm. Eggs develop inside the body and are shed in capsules. Weeks later, the eggs hatch and grow into adults. Sexual reproduction is desirable because it enhances the survival of the species by increasing the level of genetic diversity.

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