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Digestive Systems of Animals

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The simplest invertebrates (animals without backbones) do not have specialized digestive organs. Single-celled organisms, such as amoebas, rely on intracellular digestion (digestion within the cell). Some many-celled organisms, such as the sponge, also use intracellular digestion. The sponge obtains the tiny organic particles that make up its diet from water passing through its body. Water enters through the sponge’s pores and leaves through an opening called the osculum. As water flows through the interior canals of the sponge, specialized cells that line these canals, called collar cells, catch and engulf organic matter. Inside the collar cells, sacs called vacuoles form around the food and enzymes digest it. The digested food then passes to other cells in the sponge’s body.

Intracellular digestion meets the needs of simple animals, but more complex organisms require systems that are more specialized. Animals such as jellyfish and nonparasitic flatworms combine the intracellular process with some specialized digestive organs. These animals have a definite mouth and a saclike cavity, which is lined with digestive cells that secrete enzymes. Digestion begins when the enzymes break down food inside the cavity in an extracellular (outside the cell) process. Cells then engulf the partly digested food, and an intracellular process similar to that of sponges completes digestion. Wastes are excreted through the mouth.

Most of the more complex invertebrates and all vertebrates (animals with a backbone) digest food entirely through extracellular processes. Food moves in one direction, from mouth to anus, through the series of organs that make up the alimentary canal. Specialization of various parts of the alimentary canal improves the body’s ability to break down food and absorb various kinds of nutrients. The mouth of many animals contains teeth or other structures to break up large lumps of food. Behind the mouth, the pharynx and esophagus swallow the food and move it to the stomach. The stomach temporarily stores the food, mixes it with digestive juices, and carries out some digestion.

Digestion is completed in the intestine. The liver and pancreas pour their digestive juices into the anterior (front) end of this organ. After the anterior intestine absorbs the usable products of digestion, the walls of the posterior (rear) intestine absorb leftover water. In vertebrates the anterior intestine is called the small intestine; the posterior intestine is the large intestine. Feces, composed of unabsorbed and indigestible food residues, form in the posterior intestine, where they are stored until they are excreted through the anus.

Within this basic plan, the specific components of the digestive system vary enormously from one animal to another. For example, a fish’s pharynx contains gill slits for breathing but has no digestive function. An earthworm’s stomach consists of two organs: a crop, in which food is stored, and a muscular gizzard, which carries out mechanical digestion by grinding food against particles of sand. The stomachs of ruminant mammals, such as cattle and deer, consist of three or four compartments, each performing a specific function. Amphibians, reptiles, and birds have an organ called a cloaca, which serves as an exit for both digestive wastes and sex cells.

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